Big Blocks and River Incision: A Numerical Modeling Perspective

Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Charles M. Shobe1,2, Gregory E Tucker1,2 and Robert S Anderson3, (1)University of Colorado at Boulder, Department of Geological Sciences, Boulder, CO, United States, (2)Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, CO, United States, (3)Department of Geological Sciences and INSTAAR, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, United States
Sediment supply dynamics affect fluvial erosion in steep landscapes. Workers have explored the effects of changing sediment flux and uniform grain size on incision processes and distribution of alluvial cover. However, sediment supplied to real rivers is often highly heterogeneous in size, especially in rapidly eroding landscapes where supply processes may range from landslides to rockfall to moraine incision. We hypothesize that the pace of landscape evolution depends on the sediment size distribution supplied to rapidly eroding channels. Rivers that quickly cut steep-walled canyons may incite a negative feedback on incision by receiving an increased supply of large, immobile blocks from the canyon walls that shield significant portions of the bed from erosion. We use a 1-D numerical model that combines mass-flux continuum treatment of several grain size classes with tracking of discrete large blocks to explore fluvial response to changing grain size distribution. We compare simulations with and without a feedback between channel incision rate and the supply rate of large blocks from adjacent hillslopes. This reflects the hypothesis that slopes will be steeper and more prone to releasing large blocks when the channel at their base is eroding rapidly. Comparing model predictions with field observations shows that our models can successfully reproduce the distribution of blocks in natural channels. Results suggest that in landscapes with access to large blocks, fluvial incision may be slowed as increasing amounts of immobile material are supplied from adjacent hillslopes and canyon walls. This can act to stall knickpoint retreat in such rivers and slow the pace of landscape adjustment. The importance of channel armoring by blocks is governed by competition between two timescales: the time required for significant block cover to accumulate in the channel and the time required for blocks to abrade, fragment, or weather down to transportable sizes. Model results also show the existence of a critical fraction of bed cover by large blocks at which incision is slowed such that few new blocks are added; this condition remains until block erosion and weathering expose additional bedrock. Our results point to the need for studies of the timing and magnitude of block supply as well as processes and timescales of block degradation.