Testing fluvial erosion models using the transient response of bedrock rivers to tectonic forcing in the Apennines, Italy

M. Attal, P.A. Cowie, A.C. Whittaker, D. Hobley, G.E. Tucker, G.P. Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The transient response of bedrock rivers to a drop in base level can be used to discriminate between competing fluvial erosion models. However, some recent studies of bedrock erosion conclude that transient river long profiles can be approximately characterized by a transport-limited erosion model, while other authors suggest that a detachment-limited model best explains their field data. The difference is thought to be due to the relative volume of sediment being fluxed through the fluvial system. Using a pragmatic approach, we address this debate by testing the ability of end-member fluvial erosion models to reproduce the well-documented evolution of three catchments in the central Apennines (Italy) which have been perturbed to various extents by an independently constrained increase in relative uplift rate. The transport-limited model is unable to account for the catchments' response to the increase in uplift rate, consistent with the observed low rates of sediment supply to the channels. Instead, a detachment-limited model with a threshold corresponding to the field-derived median grain size of the sediment plus a slope-dependent channel width satisfactorily reproduces the overall convex long profiles along the studied rivers. Importantly, we find that the prefactor in the hydraulic scaling relationship is uplift dependent, leading to landscapes responding faster the higher the uplift rate, consistent with field observations. We conclude that a slope-dependent channel width and an entrainment/erosion threshold are necessary ingredients when modeling landscape evolution or mapping the distribution of fluvial erosion rates in areas where the rate of sediment supply to channels is low.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberF02005
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research
Issue numberF2
Early online date16 Apr 2011
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011


  • river
  • erosion
  • tectonics
  • modeling
  • transient landscapes

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