Assessing the relative efficiency of fluvial and glacial erosion through simulation of fluvial landscapes

Simon H. Brocklehurst, Kelin X. Whipple

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


The relative rates of erosion by rivers and glaciers, and the topographic effects of these two different styles of erosion, remain outstanding problems in geomorphology. We use a quantitative description of local fluvial landscapes to estimate how glaciated landscapes might look now had glaciers not developed. This indicates the landscape modification attributable to glacial erosion. We present examples from the Sierra Nevada, California and the Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado. In smaller drainage basins, glacial modification is focussed above the mean Quaternary equilibrium line altitude (ELA), where both ridgelines and valley floors have been lowered as a consequence of glaciation. At lower elevations, small glaciers have apparently widened valleys without incising the valley floor beyond what a river would have. This may reflect the short residence time of the glaciers at their full extent, or differences in the subglacial drainage network between the glacier margins and the thalweg. In larger drainage basins, the pattern of glacial erosion is dramatically different. Here, the glaciers have modified longitudinal profiles, as well as valley cross sections, far below the mean Quaternary ELA. Possible causes of this difference in the larger basins include the larger accumulation area, greater shading of the valley floor, longer residence times for ice at its full extent, and the influence of the shallower valley slope prior to glaciation on the subsequent glacier and subglacial drainage conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-299
Number of pages17
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - May 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Glacial erosion
  • Landscape evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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