Expression of active tectonics in erosional landscapes

Eric Kirby, Kelin Whipple

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

754 Scopus citations


Understanding the manner and degree to which topography in active mountain ranges reflects deformation of the Earth's surface remains a first order goal of tectonic geomorphology. A substantial body of research in the past decade demonstrates that incising channel systems play a central role in setting relationships among topographic relief, differential rock uplift rate, and climatically modulated erosional efficiency. This review provides an introduction to the analysis and interpretation of channel profiles in erosional mountain ranges. We show that existing data support theoretical expectations of positive, monotonic relationships between channel steepness index, a measure of channel gradient normalized for downstream increases in drainage area, and erosion rate at equilibrium, and that the transient response to perturbations away from equilibrium engenders specific spatial patterns in channel profiles that can be used to infer aspects of the forcing. These aspects of channel behavior lay the foundation for a series of case studies that we use to illustrate how focused, quantitative analysis of channel morphology can provide insight into the spatial and temporal dynamics of active deformation. Although the complexities of river response to climate, lithology, and uplift patterns mean that multiple interpretations of topographic data alone will always possible, we show that application of stream profile analysis can be a powerful reconnaissance tool with which to interrogate the rates and patterns of deformation in active mountain belts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-75
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Structural Geology
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Active tectonics
  • Neotectonics
  • River profiles
  • Tectonic geomorphology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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