Catastrophic canyon formation

Huge canyons, such as the Grand Canyon and the Gorge of the Blue Nile, have generally been supposed to have resulted from steady-state erosion through resistant rocks, accelerating during annual floods. There are exceptions that produced spectacular gorges during emptying of proglacial lakes in North America and on a lesser scale in northern Britain. Just how efficient at erosion individual floods may be was demonstrated by release of reservoir water through a spillway in Texas for about 3 days in 2002 (Lamb M.P. & Fonstad, M.A. 2010. Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event. Nature Geoscience, v. 3, p. 477-481). The peak discharge was ~1500 m3s-1, which is not especially huge, yet up to 12 m of erosion occurred through bedrock to produce a sizeable canyon in what was previously a typical small stream valley. Although some erosion was by plucking of joint blocks a considerable amount occurred by potholes scoured by boulders swirling in the rapid currents. Small islands, resembling those preserved in glacial lake outburst floods, were sculpted mainly by suspended sediment rather than by boulder impacts. Another feature that forces a rethink of erosional processes is that waterfalls show no sign of headward retreat by undercutting, but seem to have formed as slabs were plucked by the hydraulic force and slid down stream to form tabular boulders. The implication is that canyons may form episodically during flood events, when the shear stress of the flow on its bed is sufficient to lift and slide joint-bounded slabs.

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