Microclimate-induced Lateral Channel Migration as a Driver for Hillslope Asymmetry in Semi-arid Landscapes

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 11:20 AM
Paul W Richardson1, J Taylor Perron1 and Scott R Miller2, (1)Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States, (2)Univ of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, United States
North-facing slopes in semi-arid regions of the northern hemisphere are commonly steeper than south-facing slopes, whereas the converse is observed in the southern hemisphere. In the absence of a structural cause, the most common explanations for topographic asymmetry ultimately invoke aspect-related microclimate. Landscapes with asymmetric topography are therefore potential natural laboratories for investigating the sensitivity of surface processes to climate. However, the specific mechanisms driving asymmetry are not well understood, and studies using asymmetric topography to investigate landscape climate sensitivity may have to consider multiple origins of the asymmetry. Two leading hypotheses have emerged. One states that small differences in microclimate cause differences in the efficiency of erosional processes on slopes with different aspect. The more efficiently eroding slope erodes faster until the resulting slope asymmetry compensates for the difference in erosional efficiency. According to the other hypothesis, the difference in erosional efficiency is not sufficient to create the observed topographic asymmetry. Instead, sediment aggradation at the foot of the more quickly eroding slope forces lateral channel migration and undercutting of the opposing slope. These two explanations for topographic asymmetry predict different trajectories of long-term landscape evolution – sustained migration of asymmetric valleys would drive stream capture and drainage reorganization, whereas the mechanism without lateral channel migration would not – but there is no existing test capable of distinguishing between them. We develop such a test using a landscape evolution model that simulates different asymmetry-forming mechanisms, including asymmetric runoff production, channel incision threshold, soil creep, and lateral channel migration. For the case of topographic asymmetry produced by lateral channel migration, the model predicts that north-facing hilltops should be more concave-down than south-facing hilltops. We apply this criterion to a field site with strongly asymmetric slopes and evaluate the extent to which lateral channel migration has contributed to the development of the asymmetry.