A Dataset of Rock Strength Along the Mixed Bedrock-alluvial Colorado River–Quantifying a Fundamental Control in Geomorphology

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 4:15 PM
Joel Lawrence Pederson and Natalie Bursztyn, Utah State University, Logan, UT, United States
Bedrock strength is a key parameter in slope stability, landscape erosion, and fluvial incision, though it is typically ignored or at best indirectly constrained in models, as with the k erodability parameter in stream-power formulations. Indeed, empirical datasets of rock strength suited to address geomorphic questions are rare, in part because of the difficulty in measuring those rocks that are heterolithic, weak, or poorly exposed. We have completed a large dataset of measured bedrock strength organized by rock units exposed along the length of the trunk Colorado-Green river through the Colorado Plateau of the western U.S. Measurements include Selby RMS, fracturing, and field compressive tests at 168 localities, as well as 672 individual-sample tensile-strength tests in the laboratory. These rock strength results are compared to geomorphic metrics of unit stream power, river gradient, valley-bottom width, and local relief through the arid Colorado Plateau.

Our measurements trend coherently and logically with bedrock type and age/induration, especially in the case of tensile strength and when the influence of fracturing is also considered, signs that the dataset is robust. Focusing on bedrock (rather than alluvial) reaches of the fluvial transect and tensile strength, there is a positive rank-correlation and a strong power-law correlation between reach-averaged rock strength and unit stream power, as well as an elegant linear relation between tensile strength and river gradient. To address the problem of immeasureable rock types, we utilize the inverse power-law scaling between tensile strength and valley-bottom width to estimate the “effective” tensile strength of heterolithic, shale-rich bedrock in alluvial reaches. These results suggest that tensile strength varies to at least an order-of-magnitude smaller values than evident with directly testable rocks in this landscape, with implications for scaling erodibility parameters. Overall, results lead to the conclusion that bedrock strength is, in fact, the first-order control on large-scale fluvial geomorphology in the Colorado Plateau. On one hand this is intuitive, yet it highlights the erroneous but common assumption that bedrock erodibility is uniform or of secondary importance in fluvial morphology and landscape evolution.