Epigenetic gorges in fluvial landscapes

W. B. Quimet, Kelin Whipple, B. T. Crosby, J. P. Johnson, T. F. Schildgen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Epigenetic gorges form when channels that have been laterally displaced during episodes of river blockage or aggradation incise down into bedrock spurs or side-walls of the former valley rather than excavating unconsolidated fills and reinhabiting the buried paleovalley. Valley-filling events that promote epigenetic gorges can be localized, such as a landslide dam or an alluvial/debris flow fan deposit at a tributary junction, or widespread, such as fluvial aggradation in response to climate change or fluctuating base-level. The formation of epigenetic gorges depends upon the competition between the resistance to transport, strength and roughness of valley-filling sediments and a river's ability to sculpt and incise bedrock. The former affects the location and lateral mobility of a channel incising into valley-filling deposits; the latter determines rates of bedrock incision should the path of the incising channel intersect with bedrock that is not the paleovalley bottom. Epigenetic gorge incision, by definition, post-dates the incision that originally cut the valley. Strath terraces and sculpted bedrock walls that form in relation to epigenetic gorges should not be used to directly infer river incision induced by tectonic activity or climate variability. Rather, they are indicative of the variability of short-term bedrock river incision and autogenic dynamics of actively incising fluvial landscapes. The rate of bedrock incision associated with an epigenetic gorge can be very high (>1 cm/yr), typically orders of magnitude higher than both short- and long-term landscape denudation rates. In the context of bedrock river incision and landscape evolution, epigenetic gorges force rivers to incise more bedrock, slowing long-term incision and delaying the adjustment of rivers to regional tectonic and climatic forcing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1993-2009
Number of pages17
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number13
StatePublished - 2008


  • Epigenetic gorge
  • Landscape evolution
  • Landslides
  • River incision
  • Strath terraces

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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