Criteria and tools for determining drainage divide stability

Adam M. Forte, Kelin Whipple

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Scopus citations


Watersheds are the fundamental organizing units in landscapes and thus the controls on drainage divide location and mobility are an essential facet of landscape evolution. Additionally, many common topographic analyses fundamentally assume that river network topology and divide locations are largely static, allowing channel profile form to be interpreted in terms of spatio-temporal patterns of rock uplift rate relative to base level, climate, or rock properties. Recently however, it has been suggested that drainage divides are more mobile than previously thought and that divide mobility, and resulting changes in drainage area, could potentially confound interpretations of river profiles. Ultimately, reliable metrics are needed to diagnose the mobility of divides as part of routine landscape analyses. One such recently proposed metric is cross-divide contrasts in χ a proxy for steady-state channel elevation, but cross-divide contrasts in a number of topographic metrics show promise. Here we use a series of landscape evolution simulations in which we induce divide mobility under different conditions to test the utility of a suite of topographic metrics of divide mobility and for comparison with natural examples in the eastern Greater Caucasus Mountains, the Kars Volcanic Plateau, and the western San Bernadino Mountains. Specifically, we test cross-divide contrasts in mean gradient, mean local relief, channel bed elevation, and χ all measured at, or averaged upstream of, a reference drainage area. Our results highlight that cross-divide contrasts in χ only faithfully reflect current divide mobility when uplift, rock erodibility, climate, and catchment outlet elevation are uniform across both river networks on either side of the divide, otherwise a χ-anomaly only indicates a possible future divide instability. The other metrics appear to be more reliable representations of current divide motion, but in natural landscapes, only cross-divide contrasts in mean gradient and local relief appear to consistently provide useful information. Multiple divide metrics should be considered simultaneously and across-divide values of all metrics examined quantitatively as visual assessment is not sufficiently reliable in many cases. We provide a series of Matlab tools built using TopoToolbox to facilitate routine analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)102-117
Number of pages16
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • East Anatolia Plateau
  • Greater Caucasus
  • San Bernadino Mountains
  • drainage divides
  • topographic analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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