Nucleation of Waterfalls at Fault Scarps Temporarily Shielded By Alluvial Fan Aggradation.

Monday, 15 December 2014
Luca C Malatesta and Michael P Lamb, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Waterfalls are important components of mountain river systems and they can serve as an agent to transfer tectonic, climatic, or authigenic signals upstream through a catchment. Retreating waterfalls lower the local base level of the adjacent hillslopes, and temporarily increase sediment delivery to the fluvial system. Their creation is often attributed to seismic ruptures, lithological boundaries, or the coalescence of multiple smaller steps. We explore here a mechanism for the nucleation of waterfalls that does not rely on sudden seismic slip but on the build-up of accumulated slip during periods of fault burial by fluvial aggradation. Alluvial fans are common features at the front of mountain ranges bound by normal or thrust faults. Climate change or internal forcing in the mountain catchment modifies the equilibrium slope of alluvial fans. When alluvial fans aggrade, they shield the active fault scarp from fluvial erosion allowing the scarp to grow undisturbed. The scarp may then be exposed when the channel incises into the fan exposing a new bedrock waterfall. We explore this mechanism analytically and using a numerical model for bedrock river incision and sediment deposition. We find that the creation of waterfalls by scarp burial is limited by three distinct timescales: 1) the critical timescale for the scarp to grow to the burial height, 2) the timescale of alluvial re-grading of the fan, and 3) the timescale of the external or internal forcing, such as climate change. The height of the waterfall is controlled by i) the difference in equilibrium alluvial-fan slopes, ii) the ratio of the respective fan and catchment sizes, iii) the catchment wide denudation rate, and iv) the fault slip rate. We test whether an individual waterfall could be produced by alluvial shielding of a scarp, and identify the tectonic, climatic, or authigenic nature of waterfalls using example field sites in the southwest United States.