Tag Archives: Landscape evolution

Fish influence mountain ranges

When asked if he would like water in his whisky W.C Fields famously remarked that he didn’t drink water because fish procreate in it (his actual words were somewhat racier). Migratory salmon do so in their millions with a great deal of energy, specifically in the gravel beds of high-energy streams. Before spawning, females lash the stream bed with their tails to create a pit or redd in the gravel, in which they lay their eggs to be fertilised  by males. Then she fills-in the redd with more gravel excavated from upstream. Salmon spawning grounds are thus easily recognised as pale patches of freshly overturned gravel on a stream bed that also contain lower amounts of fine sediment and are thereby loosened. As well as discouraging bibulous old men from diluting their liquor, it occurred to Alexander Fremier of Washington State University and other American colleagues that here was a noteworthy example of an active part of the biosphere physically intervening in the rock cycle. Not that it comes even close to what humans have become capable of since the Industrial Revolution, but it might be an object lesson in the fragility of what are otherwise the robust processes of erosion. Moreover, since salmon emerged at some time in the past, their actions might help demonstrate that evolutionary events – speciation, adaptive radiations, mass extinctions etc – play a role in transforming geological processes.

Pacific salmon are semelparous or "big ba...

Pacific Sock-eye salmon that die shortly after spawning (credit: Wikipedia)

Fremier and colleagues (Fremier, A.K. et al. 2017. Sex that moves mountains: The influence of spawning fish on river profiles over geologic timescales. Geomorphology online publication; doi.org/10.1016/j.geomorph.2017.09.033) modeled the consequences of salmon spawning habits for the critical stress needed to set grains in motion, theoretically and in a flume tank. Based on a significant reduction of the critical stress, models for the evolution on various river profiles in the vicinity of salmon spawning grounds suggest that river beds may cut deeper at rates up to 30% faster than they would in the absence of salmon. Were salmon to be reduced or extirpated through dam construction or overfishing then sedimentation in channels would increase. In some areas of extensive farming of salmon in offshore pens, escape and colonization of rivers would eventually change sedimentation and erosion patterns. The findings vary from species to species, but salmon may have had a significant effect on generally rugged landscapes following their appearance in local ecosystems.

The terrestrial-marine-terrestrial migratory habits of salmon, including the return of adults to their birth rivers to spawn, are uncommon if not unique. Their forbears must have evolved to this behaviour at some time in the geological past, separately in the case of North Atlantic and North Pacific species. The authors suggest that adaptive radiation of salmon may have been favoured by orogenic events in western North America around 100 Ma ago that created the system of fast flowing rivers that salmon favour. In turn, salmon may have significantly influenced Western Cordillera landscapes of Alaska, Canada and the conterminous Unites States. A nice example of the inseparability of cause and effect on the scale of the Earth System.

Two large, reorganised landscapes

Where tectonic processes proceed quickly it is only to be expected that the land surface undergoes dramatic changes and that big features form. Exactly which processes lay behind very striking landforms may have been worked out long ago; or old ideas from the heyday of geomorphology have perhaps lingered longer than they should. Two tectonically active regions that have a long history of study are the Himalaya and Iceland: one a model of long-lived and rapid uplift driven by collisional tectonics; the other likewise, as a product of extension and rapid build-up of flood basalt flows. Major features of both have been shown to be not quite what they seem.
Substantial parts of the India-Asia collision zone contain broad patches of high, low-relief plateaus separated by deeply incised river gorges. In its eastern parts rise 3 of the largest rivers in SE Asia: the Yangtse; the Mekong and the Salween, which flow roughly parallel to the east and south-east for about 1000 km from their sources in the Tibetan Plateau. Their trajectories partly follow some enormous strike-slip fault that accommodated the relative motion of two continent-bearing plates over the last 50 million years. As well as the crustal thickening that attended the collision, vast amounts of uplifted material have been eroded from the three major gorges. Thickening and unloading have been the key to producing the largest tracts of high land on the planet. Yet between the gorges and their many tributaries in the eastern part of the collision zone are many tracts of high land with only moderate relief rather than sharp ridges. Because the Eurasian plate prior to India’s impact might reasonably be expected to have been only moderately high, if not low lying, and with a mature and muted landscape, a long-lived theory has been that these elevated plateaus are uplifted relics of this former landscape that were dissected by progressively deepening river incision. Much the same idea has been applied to similar mega features, and even coincident peaks in more completely eroded highlands.

Drainage basins of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween rivers, with low-relief surfaces in buff and cream. Figure 1 in Yang et al. 2015 (credit: Nature)

Drainage basins of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween rivers, with low-relief surfaces in buff and cream. Figure 1 in Yang et al. 2015 (credit: Nature)

In the India-Asian collision zone the supposedly ‘relic’ plateaus have been used to reconstruct the pre-collision land surface and the degree of bulging it has undergone since. However, the advent of accurate digital terrain elevation data has enabled the modelling of not only the large rivers but also of the tributary streams that make up major drainage. As well as the directional aspects of drainages their along-channel slopes can be analysed (Yong, R. et al. 2015. In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption. Nature, v. 520, p. 526-529). Rong Yang of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and colleagues from the same department and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel have been able to show that matters are far more complex than once believed. The tributary drainages of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween gorges appear to have been repeatedly been disrupted by the complexities of deformation. One important factor has been drainage capture or piracy, in which drainages with greater energy erode towards the heads of their catchments until they intercept a major drainage in another sub-basin, thereby ‘stealing’ the energy of the water that it carries. The ‘pirate’ stream then erodes more powerfully in its lower reaches, whereas the basin burgled of much of its energy becomes more sluggishly evolving thereafter and increasingly left anomalous high in the regional terrain: it evolves to liken what previously it had been supposed to be – a relic of the pre-collision landscape.
Many of the rivers in Iceland occupy gorges that contain a succession of large waterfalls. Upstream of each is a wide rock terrace, and downstream the gorge is eroded into such a terrace. Much of Iceland is composed of lava flows piled one above another, as befits the only substantial land that straddles a constructive plate margin – the mid-Atlantic Ridge. Being famous also for its substantial ice caps that are relics of one far larger during the last glacial maximum, it has proved irresistible for geomorphologists to assign the gorge-fall-terrace repetition to gradual uplift due to isostatic rebound as the former ice cap melted and unloaded the underlying lithosphere. As relative sea-level fell each river gained more gravitational potential energy to cut back up its channel, which resulted in a succession of upstream migrating waterfalls and gorges below them. Individual lava flows, being highly resistant to abrasion cease to be affected once cut by a gorge; hence the terraces. But it is now possible to establish the date when each terrace first became exposed to cosmic-ray bombardment, using the amount of cosmogenic 3He that has accumulated in the basalts that form the terrace surfaces (Baynes, E.R. et al. 2015. Erosion during extreme flood events dominates Holocene canyon evolution in northeast Iceland. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, doi:10.1073/pnas.1415443112).

Valley of Jökulsá á Fjöllum past Dettifoss, Jö...

Gorge incised in basalt flows, Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Iceland (credit: Wikipedia)

The British-German team from the University of Edinburgh and Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum, Potsdam worked on terraces of the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, discovering that three terraces formed abruptly in the Holocene, at 9, 5 and 2 ka ago, with no evidence for any gradual erosion by abrasion. Each terrace was cut suddenly, probably aided by the highly jointed nature of the overlying lava flow that would encourage toppling of blocks given sufficient energy. The team suggests that each represents not stages in uplift, but individual megafloods, perhaps caused by catastrophic glacial melting during subglacial eruptions or failures of dams formed by moraines or ice lobes.