A New View of Dynamic River Networks

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 9:00 AM
J Taylor Perron, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States, Sean Willett, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland and Scott W McCoy, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV, United States
River networks are the main conduits that transport water, sediment, and nutrients from continental interiors to the oceans. They also shape topography as they erode through bedrock. These hierarchical networks are dynamic: there are numerous examples of apparent changes in the topology of river networks through geologic time. But these examples are geographically scattered, the evidence can be ambiguous, and the mechanisms that drive changes in river networks are poorly understood. This makes it difficult to assess how pervasive river network reorganization is, how it operates, and how the interlocking river basins that compose a given landscape are changing through time. Recent progress has improved the situation. We describe three developments that have dramatically advanced our understanding of dynamic river networks. First, new topographic, geophysical and geochronological measurement techniques are revealing the rate and extent of river network adjustment. Second, laboratory experiments and computational models are clarifying how river networks respond to tectonic and climatic perturbations at scales ranging from local to continental. Third, spatial analysis of genetic data is exposing links between landscape evolution, biological evolution, and the development of biodiversity. We highlight key problems that remain unsolved, and suggest ways to build on recent advances that will bring dynamic river networks into even sharper focus.