Regional piedmont incision during base-level rise in the northeastern Sonoran Desert, Arizona, USA

Christian González, Madeline Kelley, M. Colin Marvin, Norma López-Castañeda, Ronald I. Dorn, Mark Schmeeckle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Ephemeral channels incise into the piedmonts (both alluvial fans and pediments) of the northeastern Sonoran Desert, USA. Located around metropolitan Phoenix, this tectonically quiescent region experienced only aggradation in endorheic structural basins throughout the Pliocene. A wave of aggradation then followed Salt and Gila river integration at the start of the Pleistocene. Aggradation of piedmont base levels continued throughout the rest of the Quaternary. This paper explores two hypotheses to explain piedmont incision despite rising base levels. The classic explanation is that incision is part of the evolution of desert mountain ranges as they decrease in size. A new alternative we propose here involves a lateral shift in base level from Pliocene endorheic basin playas to positions kilometers closer to range fronts in response to river integration. We present a thought exercise of modeling a pediment longitudinal profile as a 1D diffusive system, and we also analyze incision into alluvial fans of the Sierra Estrella range. While our 1D modeling results for pediments are consistent with both explanations for range-front incision, Sierra Estrella bajada incision is best explained by the sudden relocation of the base level to the toe of desert piedmonts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-97
Number of pages31
JournalPhysical Geography
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022


  • arid geomorphology
  • diffusive processes
  • landscape evolution
  • morphometric analysis
  • numerical modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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