Wildfires and the formation of sugar-loaf hills

One iconic feature of Rio de Janeiro is Corcovado Mountain, topped by the huge Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue. Another is the Sugar Loaf (Pão de Açúcar) that broods over Botafogo Bay. Each is an inselberg: a loan word from the German for ‘island mountain’. Elsewhere they are known as kopjes (southern Africa), monadnocks (North America) or bornhardts after the German explorer who first described them. But, being on the coast, the Brazilian examples are not typical. Most rise up spectacularly from almost featureless plains, a well-known case being Uluru (Ayers Rock) almost at the centre of Australia. Arid and semi-arid plains of Africa and the Indian subcontinent are liberally dotted with them. So scenically dominant and spectacularly stark, inselbergs are often revered by local people, and have been so for millennia. The only thing that I remember from a desperately boring, but compulsory, first-year course on geomorphology in 1965 is their connection with the ‘cosmogonic egg’: a mythological motif that spans Eurasia, Australia and Africa, signifying that from which the universe hatched. It is perhaps no coincidence that hills in England that suddenly rise from flat land, such as the Wrekin in Shropshire and Malvern Hill in Worcestershire, still host the sport of rolling hard-boiled eggs to celebrate the pagan festival of Eostre (now Easter) that marks the spring rebirth of the land.    

Vista of Rio de Janeiro and its inselbergs (Credit: Leonardo Ferreira Mendes, Creative Commons)

How inselbergs and their surrounding plains formed has long been a hot topic in tropical geomorphology. One theory is that they are especially resistant rocks around which eroding rivers meandered during the formation of peneplains, a variant being that they were surrounded by lines of weakness, such as faults or major joint systems. Another is that they formed by erosion into a deeply but irregularly weathered surface. Then there is L.C. Kings theory of escarpment retreat and, of course, a mixture of processes in different stages, or a unique origin for each inselberg. In effect, there has been no final, widely agreed explanation. But that that may be about to change.

A common element to most inselbergs is their very steep and sometimes vertical flanks. Some even display overhangs at their base. Such potential shelters encouraged local people to camp there and, in response to the awe inspired by the sheer majesty of the looming inselberg, to use them for sacred rites and decoration. That is especially true of Australia, so it is fitting that what may be a breakthrough in understanding inselberg formation should have arisen there. (Buckman, S. et al. 2021. Fire-induced rock spalling as a mechanism of weathering responsible for flared slope and inselberg developmentNature Communications, v. 12, article 2150; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-22451-2). Breaking rock by deliberate use of fire has been done for millennia. For instance, Hannibal is said to have used fire to break down huge fallen boulders that blocked passage for his war elephants as his army advanced on Rome. Fire setting is still used by villagers in South India to spall large flakes of rock from outcrops. It is done with such skill that thin slabs up to 3-4 metres across can be lifted, and then split into thin posts for fencing or training vines: an essential alternative to wooden posts that termites would otherwise devour in a matter of months.

Solomon Buckman and colleagues from the University of Wollongong, Australia were drawn to a new hypothesis for inselberg formation by observations around low rock faces and boulders after the 2019-20 “Black Summer” wildfires in eastern Australia. Where burned trees had fallen against rock faces up to hundreds of kg of spalled flakes lay at the base of each face, which also bore freshly formed scars: clear signs of fire action. Thermal expansion and contraction of rock caused by air temperatures of hundreds of degrees close to wildfires is clearly a powerful means of rapid erosion. If the rock is damp – most likely at the base of a rockface as all rainfall on the outcrop drains in its direction – the mechanism is enhanced: Hannibal’s engineers poured vinegar onto the boulders heated by fire, to great effect. Buckman et al. estimate the rate of lateral erosion by fire at slope bases in Australia to be around ten thousand times faster than those operating on horizontal rock surfaces, which are not exposed to fire as no vegetation grows on them. Over time, slopes steepen aided by the formation of flared surfaces at the base. If spalled debris is carried away quickly the developing inselberg evolves to its classical sugarloaf shape. In more arid conditions the debris builds around the outcrop to steadily smother inselberg development, leaving tors and kopjes. The paper came to press remarkably quickly relative to the authors’ field work and analyses. This is a work-in-progress to be followed up by cosmogenic-isotope and other means of surface dating of the tops and flanks of suitably accessible inselbergs and simiar features such as Western Australia’s famous Wave Rock (a flared escarpment).

Wave Rock in the interior of Western Australia is 15 m high and 100 m long and revered by the local Ballardong people as a creation of the Rainbow Serpent

What controls the height of mountains?

‘Everybody knows’ that mountains grow: the question is, ‘How?’ There is a tale that farmers once believed that they grew from pebbles: ‘every year I try to rid my field of stones, but more are back the following year, so they must grow’… Geoscientists know better – or so they think[!] – and for 130 years have referred to ‘orogeny’, a classically-inspired term (from the Ancient Greek óros and geneia – high-ground creation’) adopted by the US geologist Grove Gilbert. It incorporates the concept of crustal thickening that results from lateral forces and horizontal compression. Another term, now rarely used, is ‘epeirogeny’ (coined too by G.K. Gilbert), wherein the continental surface rises or falls in response to underlying gravitational forces. That could include: changing mantle density over a hot, rising plume; detachment or delamination into the mantle of dense lower lithosphere; loading or unloading by ice during glacial cycles. Epeirogeny is bound up with isostasy, the maintenance of gravitational balance of mass in the outermost Earth.

A small part of the High Himalaya (credit: Access-Himalaya)

In 1990, Peter Molnar and Philip England pointed out that the incision of deep valleys into mountain ranges results in stupendous and rapid removal of mass from orogenic belts, which adds a major isostatic force to mountain building (Molnar, P. & England, P. 1990. Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg? Nature, v. 346, p. 29–34; DOI: 10.1038/346029a0). In their model, the remaining peaks are driven higher by isostasy. They, and others, coupled climate change with compressional tectonics in a positive feedback that drives peaks to elevations that they would otherwise never achieve. Molnar and England’s review saw complex interplays contributing to mountain building, accompanying chemical weathering even changing global climate by sequestering atmospheric CO2 into the minerals that it produces. As well as the height of peaks in active zones of crustal shortening and thickening, such as the Himalaya, Molnar and England’s theory explained the aberrant high peaks at the edge of high plateaus that are passively subject to erosion. Examples of the latter are the isolated peaks beyond the eastern edge of the Ethiopian Plateau that locally have the greatest elevation than the flood basalts that form the plateau: unloading around these peaks has caused them to rise isostatically.

Thirty years on, this paradigm is being questioned, at least as regards active orogens (Dielforder, A. et al. 2020. Megathrust shear force controls mountain height at convergent plate margins. Nature, v. 582, p. 225–229; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2340-7). Armin Dielforder and colleagues at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam and The University of Münster consider that overall mountain height is sustained by interactions between three forces. 1. They are prevented from falling apart under their own weight or being pushed up further against gravity by lateral tectonic force. 2. Climate controlled erosion limits mountain height by removing material from the highest elevations. 3. Isostasy keeps the mountains ‘afloat’ above the asthenosphere. The authors have attempted to assess and balance all three major forces that determine the overall elevation of mountain belts.

At a convergent plate margin where one plate is shoved beneath another, the megathrust above the subduction zone behaves in a brittle fashion, with associated friction, towards the surface. At depth this transitions to a zone of ductile deformation dominated by viscosity. A major assumption in this work is that stress in the crust below a mountain belt is neutral; i.e. horizontal, tectonic compression is equal to the weight of the mountains themselves and thus to their height. So, the greater the tectonic compressive force the higher the mountain range that it can support. The test is to compare the actual elevation with that predicted from plate-tectonic considerations. For 10 active orogenic belts there is a remarkable correspondence between the model and actuality. the authors conclude that variation over time of mountain height reflects log-term variations in the force balance, in which they find little sign of a climatic/erosional control. But that doesn’t resolve the issue satisfactorily, at least for me.

The study focuses on the mean elevation, and this leaves out the largest mountains; for instance, their maximum mean elevation for the Himalaya is about 5.46 km (in fact for a narrow  NE-SW swath that may not be representative of the whole range). Yet the Himalaya contains 10 of the world’s highest mountains, all over 8 km high and 50 peaks that top 7 km, adjacent to the Tibetan Plateau. The mean elevation of the whole Himalayan range is 6.1 km. Consequently, it seems to me, the range’s maximum mean elevation must be somewhat higher than that reported by Dielforder et al.  The difference suggests that non-tectonic forces do contribute significantly to Himalayan terrain

See also:  Wang, K. 2020. Mountain height may be controlled by tectonic force, rather than erosion. Nature, v. 582, p. 189-190; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01601-4

The effect of surface processes on tectonics

Active sedimentation in the Indus and Upper Ganges plains (green vegetated) derived from rapid erosion of the Himalaya (credit: Google Earth)

The Proterozoic Eon of the Precambrian is subdivided into the Palaeo-, Meso- and Neoproterozoic Eras that are, respectively, 900, 600 and 450 Ma long. The degree to which geoscientists are sufficiently interested in rocks within such time spans is roughly proportional to the number of publications whose title includes their name. Searching the ISI Web of Knowledge using this parameter yields 2000, 840 and 2700 hits in the last two complete decades, that is 2.2, 1.4 and 6.0 hits per million years, respectively. Clearly there is less interest in the early part of the Proterozoic. Perhaps that is due to there being smaller areas over which they are exposed, or maybe simply because what those rocks show is inherently less interesting than those of the Neoproterozoic. The Neoproterozoic is stuffed with fascinating topics: the appearance of large-bodied life forms; three Snowball Earth episodes; and a great deal of tectonic activity, including the Pan-African orogeny. The time that precedes it isn’t so gripping: it is widely known as the ‘boring billion’ – coined by the late Martin Brazier – from about 1.75 to 0.75 Ga. The Palaeoproterozoic draws attention by encompassing the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’ around 2.4 Ga, the massive deposition of banded iron formations up to 1.8 Ga, its own Snowball Earth, emergence of the eukaryotes and several orogenies. The Mesoproterozoic witnesses one orogeny, the formation of a supercontinent (Rodinia) and even has its own petroleum potential (93 billion barrels in place in Australia’s Beetaloo Basin. So it does have its high points, but not a lot. Although data are more scanty than for the Phanerozoic Eon, during the Mesoproterozoic the Earth’s magnetic field was much steadier than in later times. That suggests that motions in the core were in a ‘steady state’, and possibly in the mantle as well. The latter is borne out by the lower pace of tectonics in the Mesoproterozoic. Continue reading “The effect of surface processes on tectonics”

Evolution of the River Nile

The longest river in the world, the Nile has all sorts of riveting connotations in terms of archaeology, Africa’s colonial history, the romance of early exploration and is currently the focus of disputes about rights to its waters. The last stems from its vast potential for irrigation and for hydropower. It is probably the most complex of all the major rivers of our planet because it stretches across so many climatic zones, topographic systems geological and tectonic provinces. Mohamed Abdelsalam of Oklahoma State University, who was born in the Sudan and began his career at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile in its capital Khartoum, is an ideal person to produce a modern scientific summary of how the Nile has evolved. That is because he has studied some of the key elements of the geology through which the river and its major tributaries travel, but most of all because he is a leading geological and geomorphological interpreter of remotely sensed data. Only space imagery can let us grasp the immense span and complexity of the Nile system. His recent review of its entirety (Abdelsalam, M.G. 2018. The Nile’s journey through space and time: A geological perspective. Earth Science Reviews, v. 177, p. 742-773; doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2018.01.010) is a tour de force, many years in the compilation, and it makes fittingly compulsive reading.

Abdelsalam lays out the geomorphology, underlying geology and regional tectonics of the Nile drainage basin, synthesized from publications over the last century, including his own work on the evolution of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. On the regional scale elements of its complexity can be ascribed to the upwelling of mantle plumes beneath the Ethiopian Highlands and Red Sea, and under the Lake Plateau centred on Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. These plumes are part of a much larger mantle mass rising from the core-mantle boundary beneath the African continent. Their influence on the lithosphere of north-east Africa began over 30 million years ago, producing vast outpourings of flood basalts followed by regional doming, the formation of large shield volcanoes and rifting to transform a once muted surface to one with a topographic range of up to 5 kilometres in the Nile’s two main source regions in Ethiopia and the Lakes Plateau.

Nile geology F5
The geological underpinnings of the Nile system (Credit: Abdelsalam 2018; Fig. 5)

The basin can be divided into six distinct provinces, from south to north the Lakes, Sudd, Central Sudan, Ethiopia – East Sudan, Cataract and Egyptian Niles. Each of them has had a different history; in fact, the making of the Nile system as we know it has taken at least 6 million years and probably longer. For instance, the Lakes Nile basin, founded mostly on Precambrian crystalline basement, seems original to have drained westward through the Congo system to the Atlantic Ocean. Sometime between 20 and 12 Ma the western branch of the East African Rift System began to form along with slow, broad uplift, hindering westward flow to create the forerunners of the Great Lakes. The flow was reversed around 2.5 Ma ago by the rise of the Rwenzori and Virunga massifs on the western rift flank and eventually forced northwards into the low-lying Sudd, breaching a major divide in Northern Uganda. The vast swamps there have acted as a buffer for sediment supply, other than the finest silts and clays, into the northern stretches of the White Nile. The Blue Nile’s tortuous trajectory evolved as the Ethiopian flood basalt province rose after 30 Ma, rifted to form the Lake Tana Basin and drained to initiate erosion into the rising plateau with the interference of huge shield volcanoes that formed as uplift proceeded.

Other events are recorded along the Nile’ general trajectory by huge, abandoned alluvial fans, relics of now vanished lakes and evidence from satellite radar of palaeo-drainages with reversed flow beneath the surface of the eastern Sahara. The system evolved episodically, in five or more steps, at the whim of broad tectonic processes that affected flow direction and erosive capacity. The Cataract Nile that cuts through hard basement rocks perhaps records the increase in energy added by the Blue Nile which, which in turn may have encouraged the drainage of the huge Sudd swamps that established the White Nile’s course. Even the Mediterranean Sea played a role: the Egyptian Nile may have formed when the sea vanished to expose a deep saline basin during the Messinian Salinity Crisis 5.5 Ma ago. This reduction in the regional base level of erosion possibly directed drainage into the present course of the Nile. The various provinces only became a unified drainage system during the last half million years, and that emerged in its present form as recently as 15 thousand years ago.  But as Abdelsalam points out, there is a great deal to learn about the fabled river system. Hopefully his review will encourage others to take investigations forward and into previously unstudied regions.

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.

When did the Greenland ice cap last melt?

The record preserved in cores through the thickest part of the Greenland ice cap goes back only to a little more than 120 thousand years ago, unlike in Antarctica where data are available for 800 ka and potentially further back still. One possible reason for this difference is that a great deal more snow falls on Greenland so the ice builds up more quickly than in Antarctica. Because ice flows under pressure this might imply that older ice on Greenland long flowed to the margins and either melted or calved off as icebergs. So, although it is certain that the Antarctic ice cap has not melted away, at least in the last million years or so, we cannot tell if Greenlandic glaciers did so over the same period of time. Knowing whether or not Greenland might have shed its carapace of ice is important, because if ever does in future the meltwater will add about 7 metres to global sea level: a nightmare scenario for coastal cities, low-lying islands and insurance companies.

Margin of the Greenland ice sheet (view from p...
Edge of the Greenland ice sheet with a large glacier flowing into a fjiord at the East Greenland coas  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One means of judging when Greenland was last free of ice, or at least substantially so, is based on more than a ice few metres thick being opaque to cosmic ‘rays’. Minerals, such as quartz, in rocks bared at the surface to ultra-high energy, cosmogenic neutrons accumulate short-lived isotopes of beryllium and aluminium – 10Be and 26Al with half-lives of 1.4 and 0.7 Ma. Once rocks are buried beneath ice or sediment, the two isotopes decay away and it is possible to estimate the duration of burial from the proportions of the remaining isotopes. After about 5 Ma the cosmogenic isotopes will have decreased to amounts that cannot be measured. Conversely, if the ice had melted away at any time in the past 5 Ma and then returned it should be possible to estimate the timing and duration of exposure of the surface to cosmic ‘rays’. Two groups of researchers have applied cosmogenic-isotope analysis to Greenland. One group (Schaefer, J.G. et al. 2016. Greenland was nearly ice-free for extended periods during the Pleistocene. Nature, v. 540, p. 252-255) focused on bedrock, currently buried beneath 3 km of ice, that drilling for the ice core finally penetrated. The other systematically analysed the cosmogenic isotope content of mineral grains at different depths in North Atlantic seafloor sediment cores, largely supplied from East Greenland since 7.5 Ma ago (Bierman, P.R. et al. 2016. A persistent and dynamic East Greenland Ice Sheet over the past 7.5 million years Nature, v. 540, p. 256-260). As their titles suggest, the two studies had conflicting results.

The glacigenic sediment grains contained no more than 1 atom of 10Be per gram compared with the 5000 to 6000 in grains deposited and exposed to cosmic rays along the shores of Greenland since the end of the last ice age. These results challenge the possibility of any significant deglaciation and exposure of bedrock in the source of seafloor sediment since the Pliocene.  The bedrock from the base of Greenland’s existing ice cap, however, contains up to 25 times more cosmogenic isotopes. The conclusion in that case is that there must have been a protracted, >280 ka, exposure of the rock surface in what is now the deepest ice cover at 1.1 Ma ago at most. Allowing for the likelihood of some persistent glacial cover in what would have been mountainous areas in an otherwise substantially deglaciated Greenland, the results are consistent with about 90% melting suggested by glaciological modelling.

Clearly, some head scratching is going to be needed to reconcile the two approaches. Ironically, the ocean-floor cores were cut directly offshore of the most likely places where patches of residual ice cap may have remained. Glaciers there would have transported rock debris that had remained masked from cosmic rays until shortly before calved icebergs or the glacial fronts melted and supplied sediment to the North Atlantic floor. If indeed the bulk of Greenland became ice free around a million years ago, under purely natural climatic fluctuations, the 2° C estimate for global warming by 2100 could well result in a 75% glacial melt and about 5-6 m rise in global sea level.

Read more about glaciation here and here.

Scablands: megaflood hypothesis tempered

Channeled Scablands during flood
Channeled Scablands at the time of a glacial lake outburst flood (credit: Wikipedia)

The eastern side of Washington State in the US includes a vast, barren area that has been scoured virtually free of superficial sediment, including soils. Its landscape is among the most odd in North America, consisting of a network of unusually wide canyons or couleés that incise a regional plateau formed by the Columbia River flood basalts. The now largely dry canyon floors contain immense potholes, megaripples and erratic boulders, together with strangely streamlined hillocks made of residual, windblown loess deposits, which collectively resemble features of normal river beds but at a gargantuan scale. The canyon network emerges from the Rocky Mountains near the city of Spokane, then criss-crosses what had previously been a wide basalt plain to merge with the Columbia River in southern Washington. The couleés are up to 100 km long and reach  100 m in depth.

Dry Falls, WA Français : Les Dry Falls dans l'...
Dry Falls in Grand Colee, Washington state, US, showing typical features of the Channelle Scablands. (credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1920s J. Harlen Bretz suggested that the Channelled Scablands had been formed by a massive flood, a view that met disbelief until his colleague Joseph Pardee discovered that a huge lake of glacial meltwater (Lake Missouala) had formed in the intricate valleys of the Montana Rockies when their outflow into Washington had been blocked by a southward-surging finger of the Cordilleran ice sheet. Lake Missouala is estimated to have been about half the size of modern Lake Michigan (~7700 km2) and up to 610 m deep, reaching a maximum volume of 2100 km3  between 15 to 13 ka ago. Bretz’s idea was vindicated; melting of the ice dam was widely thought to have produced a single vast outburst flood and the removal of approximately 320 km3 of basalt and loess. The later discovery of strandlines, similar to those on a smaller scale in Glen Roy, western Scotland, on the flanks of former lake modified the theory to a series of individual, but still huge outburst flood events. Their magnitudes, estimated by assuming that each filled the coulees to their brim, were thought to be up to 60 km3 per hour, i.e. 100 times greater than the largest recorded historically, that of the Amazon. A recent study tempers the awe long-associated with the Scablands.

Isaac Larsen and Michael Lamb of the University of Massachusetts and the California Institute of Technology examined Moses Couleé, one of the largest, in detail (Larsen, I.J. & Lamb, M.P. 2016. Progressive incision of the Channelled Scablands by outburst floods. Nature, v. 538, p. 229-232; doi;10.1038/nature19817). Terraces in Moses Couleé allow successive topographic profiles of the canyon to be reconstructed, and the flow features on its floor allow water depth during some of the flows to be estimated. Far from being brim-full at any time, except during the first incision, individual discharges of meltwater were probably 5 to 10 times less than those previously suggested. Moreover, the pattern of the Scablands reflects major fracture zones n the Columbia River flood basalts, which suggests that floods followed lines of least resistance and greatest ease of erosion by removal of joint-bound blocks of basalt. Yet the floods still reached a magnitude never recorded for modern ones, and Larsen and Lambs modelling may well apply to the even vaster outburst canyons on Mars, such as Valles Marineris.

See also: Perron, J.T. & Venditti, J.G. 2016, Megafloods downsized. Nature, v. 538, p. 174-175; nature.com/newsandviews

Picture of the month, June 2015

Spheroidally weathered basalt from Turkey. (credit: Francisco Sousa)

Spheroidal weathering of lavas, easily confused with pillows, is also found in other homogeneous igneous rocks. It develops from rectilinear joint sets along which the groundwater responsible for breakdown of silicates initially moves. Hydration reactions begin along the joints but proceed most quickly at corners so that curved surfaces begin to develop. The concentric  banding that sometimes culminates in almost spherical relics may involve more than just rotting of anhydrous silicates as the reactions involve volume increases that encourage further rock fracturing. Other factors, such as elastic strain release may also encourage the characteristic concentricity Prolonged, intense chemical weathering leaves isolated, rounded corestones surrounded by saprolite, that can form boulder fields when the softer weathered material has been eroded away.

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.

Explosive erosion in the Himalaya

As the Yalung-Tsangpo River on the northern flank of the Himalaya approaches  a bend the rotates its flow by almost 180 degrees to become the Brahmaputra it enters one of the world’s largest canyons. Over the 200 km length of the Tsangpo Gorge the river descends two kilometres between peaks that tower 7 km above sea level. Since the area is rising tectonically and as a result of the unloading that attends erosion, for the Tsangpo to have maintained its eastward flow it has been suggested that an average erosion rate of 3 to 5 km per million years was maintained continuously over the last 3 to 5 Ma. However, new information from the sediments downstream of the gorge suggests that much of the gorge’s depth was cut during a series of sudden episodes (Lang, K.A. et al. 2013. Erosion of the Tsangpo Gorge by megafloods, Eastern Himalaya. Geology, v. 41, p. 1003-1006).

English: Map of the Yarlung Tsangpo River wate...
The Yarlung Tsangpo River watershed which drains the north slope of the Himalayas. (credit: Wikipedia)

It has become clear from a series of mountainside terraces that during the Pleistocene glaciers and debris from them often blocked the narrow valleys through which the river flowed along the northern flank of the Himalaya. Each blockage would have impounded enormous lakes upstream of the Tsangpo Gorge, containing up to 800 km3 of water. Failure of the natural dams would have unleashed equally spectacular floods. The researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle examined the valley downstream of the gorge, to find unconsolidated sediments as much as 150 m above the present channel. They have similar grain size distributions to flood deposits laid down some 30 m above the channel by a flood unleashed in 2000 by the failure of a temporary dam caused by a landslide. The difference is that the higher level deposits are densely vegetated and have well-developed soils: they are almost certainly relics of far larger floods in the distant past from the lakes betrayed by the terraces above the Tsangpo Gorge.

By measuring the age of zircons found in the megaflood deposits using the U/Pb methods the team  have been able to show that the sediments were derived mainly from 500 Ma crystalline basement in the Tsangpo Gorge itself rather than from the younger terranes in Tibet. There are four such deposits at separate elevations above the modern river below the gorge. Like the 2000 AD flood deposit, each terrace is capped by landslide debris suggesting that flooding and associated erosion destabilised the steep slopes so characteristic of the region. Because the valleys are so narrow (<200 m at the bottom), each flood would have been extremely deep, flows being of the order of a million cubic metres per second. The huge power would have been capable of moving blocks up to 18 m across with 1 m boulders being carried in suspension. It has been estimated that each of the floods would have been capable of removing material that would otherwise have taken up to 4000 years to erode at present rates of flow.