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Fluvial and slope-wash erosion of soil-mantled landscapes: detachment- or transport-limited?


J. D. Pelletier, Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, 1040 East Fourth Street, Tucson, Arizona 85721–0077, USA. E-mail:


Many numerical landform evolution models assume that soil erosion by flowing water is either purely detachment-limited (i.e. erosion rate is related to the shear stress, power, or velocity of the flow) or purely transport-limited (i.e. erosion/deposition rate is related to the divergence of shear stress, power, or velocity). This paper reviews available data on the relative importance of detachment-limited versus transport-limited erosion by flowing water on soil-mantled hillslopes and low-order valleys. Field measurements indicate that fluvial and slope-wash modification of soil-mantled landscapes is best represented by a combination of transport-limited and detachment-limited conditions with the relative importance of each approximately equal to the ratio of sand and rock fragments to silt and clay in the eroding soil. Available data also indicate that detachment/entrainment thresholds are highly variable in space and time in many landscapes, with local threshold values dependent on vegetation cover, rock-fragment armoring, surface roughness, soil texture and cohesion. This heterogeneity is significant for determining the form of the fluvial/slope-wash erosion or transport law because spatial and/or temporal variations in detachment/entrainment thresholds can effectively increase the nonlinearity of the relationship between sediment transport and stream power. Results from landform evolution modeling also suggest that, aside from the presence of distributary channel networks and autogenic cut-and-fill cycles in non-steady-state transport-limited landscapes, it is difficult to infer the relative importance of transport-limited versus detachment-limited conditions using topography alone. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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