Hypsometry of glaciated landscapes

Simon H. Brocklehurst, Kelin X. Whipple

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

155 Scopus citations


Hypsometry (frequency distribution of elevations) is often used to characterize landscape morphology, traditionally in the context of the degree of fluvial dissection. Recently, the hypsometry of glaciated regions has been used to infer how rates of glacial erosion compare with tectonic uplift rates. However, many factors other than tectonics can also exert a major influence on the hypsometry of a glaciated landscape, resulting in a wide variety of hypsometries. Using examples from the eastern Sierra Nevada, California, the western Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado, and the Ben Ohau Range, New Zealand, we demonstrate that, all else being equal, the hypsometries of neighbouring basins can indicate the relative degree of glacial modification in each. A selection of drainage basins from the Rocky Mountains shows that the position of the equilibrium line altitude (ELA) within the drainage basin relief is a dominant variable in determining the hypsometry of a glaciated basin. This is a non-linear effect: once the ELA falls to some critical level, the glaciers scour deeply below the ELA, causing a noticeably different hypsometry. The hypsometry of an arbitrary region encompassing many drainage basins can disguise the variation present in the hypsometries, and thus landforms, of the individual basins. Unique local circumstances, such as the presence of a mountain icefield (Waiho Basin, Southern Alps), substantial hanging valleys (Avalanche Creek, Glacier National Park), a narrow outlet canyon (Sawmill Creek, Sierra Nevada), and isolated geologic structures (Baker Creek, Sierra Nevada), can have a major impact on the hypsometry of an individual basin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)907-926
Number of pages20
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Glacial erosion
  • Glaciated landscapes
  • Hypsometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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