An Investigation of Amphitheater-Headed Canyon Distribution, Morphology Variation, and Longitudinal Profile Controls in Escalante and Tarantula Mesa, Utah.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Andrew Joseph Ryan and Kelin X Whipple, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, United States
Amphitheater-headed canyons are primarily distinguished from typical fluvial channels by their abrupt headwall terminations. A key goal in the study of river canyons is to establish a reliable link between form and formation processes. This is of particular significance for Mars, where, if such links can be established, amphitheater-headed canyons could be used to determine ancient erosion mechanisms and, by inference, climate conditions. Type examples in arid regions on Earth, such as in Escalante River, Utah, previously have been interpreted as products of groundwater seepage erosion. We investigate amphitheater-headed canyons in Escalante and Tarantula Mesa where variations in canyon head morphology may hold clues for the relative roles of rock properties and fluvial and groundwater processes. In lower Escalante, amphitheaters are only present where canyons have breached the Navajo Sandstone – Kayenta Formation contact. In some canyons, amphitheater development appears to have been inhibited by an abundance of coarse bedload. In Tarantula Mesa, canyons have a variety of headwalls, from amphitheaters to stepped knickzones. Headwall morphology distribution is directly related to the spatially variable presence of knickpoint-forming, fine-grained interbeds within cliff-forming sandstones. Amphitheaters only form where the sandstone unit is undisrupted by these interbeds. Finally, most canyons in Escalante and Tarantula Mesa, regardless of substrate lithology, amphitheater presence, or groundwater spring intensity, are well described by a slope-area power law relationship with regionally constant concavity and normalized steepness indices. This suggests that all channels here are subject to the same erosion rates, independent of groundwater weathering intensity. Thus: 1) variations in canyon headwall form do not necessary relate to differences in fluvial history, 2) stratigraphic variations are clearly of importance in sedimentary canyon systems, and 3) although groundwater seepage weathering is clearly active in many canyons in Utah and may be responsible for amphitheater development, fluvial forces appear to be the dominant erosive force responsible for shaping stream profiles.