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Hillslope response to knickpoint migration in the Southern Appalachians: Implications for the evolution of post-orogenic landscapes

January 1, 2011

The southern Appalachians represent a landscape characterized by locally high topographic relief, steep slopes, and frequent mass movement in the absence of significant tectonic forcing for at least the last 200 Ma. The fundamental processes responsible for landscape evolution in a post‐orogenic landscape remain enigmatic. The non‐glaciated Cullasaja River basin of south‐western North Carolina, with uniform lithology, frequent debris flows, and the availability of high‐resolution airborne lidar DEMs, is an ideal natural setting to study landscape evolution in a post‐orogenic landscape through the lens of hillslope–channel coupling. This investigation is limited to channels with upslope contributing areas >2.7 km2, a conservative estimate of the transition from fluvial to debris‐flow dominated channel processes. Values of normalized hypsometry, hypsometric integral, and mean slope vs elevation are used for 14 tributary basins and the Cullasaja basin as a whole to characterize landscape evolution following upstream knickpoint migration. Results highlight the existence of a transient spatial relationship between knickpoints present along the fluvial network of the Cullasaja basin and adjacent hillslopes. Metrics of topography (relief, slope gradient) and hillslope activity (landslide frequency) exhibit significant downstream increases below the current position of major knickpoints. The transient effect of knickpoint‐driven channel incision on basin hillslopes is captured by measuring the relief, mean slope steepness, and mass movement frequency of tributary basins and comparing these results with the distance from major knickpoints along the Cullasaja River. A conceptual model of area–elevation and slope distributions is presented that may be representative of post‐orogenic landscape evolution in analogous geologic settings. Importantly, the model explains how knickpoint migration and channel–hillslope coupling is an important factor in tectonically‐inactive (i.e. post‐orogenic) orogens for the maintenance of significant relief, steep slopes, and weathering‐limited hillslopes.

Publication Year 2011
Title Hillslope response to knickpoint migration in the Southern Appalachians: Implications for the evolution of post-orogenic landscapes
DOI 10.1002/esp.2150
Authors S.F.G. Wegmann, K.L. Franke, S. Hughes, R.Q. Lewis, N. Lyons, P. Paris, K. Ross, J.B. Bauer, A.C. Witt
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Index ID 70036216
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse