Distribution of active rock uplift along the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau: Inferences from bedrock channel longitudinal profiles

Eric Kirby, Kelin X. Whipple, Wenqing Tang, Zhiliang Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

472 Scopus citations


Current models of long-term river incision into bedrock suggest that the local rate of differential rock uplift should exert a primary control on the gradient of channel longitudinal profiles. However, discrimination of this effect from the influence of variations in substrate erodibility, sediment flux, precipitation, and transient changes in profile shape has proved difficult in practice. Here we investigate the controls on the spatial distribution of bedrock channel gradients adjacent to the Sichuan Basin in an effort to assess the degree and nature of active deformation along this margin of the Tibetan Plateau. Analysis of river longitudinal profiles utilizing a channel steepness index (a measure of profile gradient normalized for drainage area) reveals a zone of anomalously steep channels adjacent to the topographic front of the plateau margin. Channel profiles are systematically less steep in their headwater reaches on the plateau and in their lower reaches east of the plateau margin. Comparison of steepness indices to mapped lithologic variations reveals that lithology has only a limited influence on channel gradient in this field area. We observe no systematic relationship between steepness indices and upstream drainage area; channels of all size are steeper near the plateau margin. We argue that these systematic changes are not readily explained as a consequence of increased sediment flux or of orographic precipitation. We are led to conclude that steep channel profiles along the topographic front of the plateau reflect active differential rock uplift between this region and the foreland.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)ETG 16-1 - 16-24
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 10 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Bedrock rivers
  • East Tibet
  • Fluvial geomorphology
  • Neotectonics
  • Sichuan Basin
  • Tibetan Plateau

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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