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Channel response to tectonic forcing: field analysis of stream morphology and hydrology in the Mendocino triple junction region, northern California

July 1, 2003

An empirical calibration of the shear stress model for bedrock incision is presented, using field and hydrologic data from a series of small, coastal drainage basins near the Mendocino triple junction in northern California. Previous work comparing basins from the high uplift zone (HUZ, uplift rates around 4 mm/year) to ones in the low uplift zone (LUZ, ∼0.5 mm/year) indicates that the HUZ channels are about twice as steep for a given drainage area. This observation suggests that incision processes are more effective in the HUZ. It motivates a detailed field study of channel morphology in the differing tectonic settings to test whether various factors that are hypothesized to influence incision rates (discharge, channel width, lithology, sediment load) change in response to uplift or otherwise differ between the HUZ and LUZ. Analysis of regional stream gaging data for mean annual discharge and individual floods yields a linear relationship between discharge and drainage area. Increased orographic precipitation in the HUZ accounts for about a twofold increase in discharge in this area, corresponding to an assumed increase in the erosional efficiency of the streams. Field measurements of channel width indicate a power-law relationship between width and drainage area with an exponent of ∼0.4 and no significant change in width between the uplift rate zones, although interpretation is hampered by a difference in land use between the zones. The HUZ channel width dataset reveals a scaling break interpreted to be the transition between colluvial- and fluvial-dominated incision processes. Assessments of lithologic resistance using a Schmidt hammer and joint surveys show that the rocks of the study area should be fairly similar in their susceptibility to erosion. The HUZ channels generally have more exposed bedrock than those in the LUZ, which is consistent with protection by sediment cover inhibiting incision in the LUZ. However, this difference is likely the result of a recent pulse of sediment due to land use in the LUZ. Therefore, the role of sediment flux in setting incision rates cannot be constrained with any certainty. To summarize, of the four response mechanisms analyzed, the only factor that demonstrably varies between uplift rate zones is discharge, although this change is likely insufficient to explain the relationship between channel slope and uplift rate. The calibrated model allows us to make a prediction of channel concavity that is consistent with a previous estimate from slope–drainage area data. We show that the inclusion of nonzero values of critical shear stress in the model has important implications for the theoretical relationship between steady-state slope and uplift rate and might provide an explanation for the observations. This analysis underscores the importance of further work to constrain quantitatively threshold shear stress for bedrock incision.

Publication Year 2003
Title Channel response to tectonic forcing: field analysis of stream morphology and hydrology in the Mendocino triple junction region, northern California
DOI 10.1016/S0169-555X(02)00349-5
Authors Noah P. Snyder, Kelin X. Whipple, Gregory E. Tucker, D.J. Merritts
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geomorphology
Index ID 70199734
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center