Relative scales of time and effectiveness of climate in watershed geomorphology



Peak rainfalls and peak runoff rates per unit area are comparable over a worldwide spectrum of climates. However, while the magnitude of the external contribution of energy or force in diverse regions is similar, the impact on the landscape varies markedly between regions. Absolute magnitudes of climatic events and absolute time intervals between such events do not provide satisfactory measures of the geomorphic effectiveness of events of different magnitudes and recurrence intervals. Although geomorphic processes are driven by complex sets of interrelated climatic, topographic, lithologic, and biologic factors, the work done by individual extreme events can be scaled as a ratio to mean annual erosion and the effectiveness of such events in forming landscape features can be related to the rate of recovery of channel form or mass wasting scars following alteration by the extreme event. Thus, a time scale for effectiveness may relate the recurrence interval of an event to the time required for a landform to recover the form existing prior to the event.

River channels in temperate regions widened by floods of recurrence intervals from 50 to more than 200 years may regain their original width in matters of months or years. In semi-arid regions, recovery of channel form depends not only upon flows but upon climatic determinants of the growth of bottomland vegetation resulting in variable rates of recovery, on the order of decades, depending upon coincidence of average flows and strengthened vegetation. In truly arid regions the absence of vegetation and flow precludes recovery and the width of channels increases in drainage areas up to 100 km2 but remains relatively constant at larger drainage areas.

Area as well as time controls the effectiveness of specific events inasmuch as the likelihood of simultaneous peak discharges or rainfalls and large areas is less, particularly in arid regions where events spanning areas of more than several thousand km2 are extremely rare if experienced at all. To some extent a decrease in area in a humid region is comparable with a regional change from humid toward more arid climate reflected in the increase in importance of episodic as contrasted with more continuous processes. Exceedingly rare floods of extreme magnitudes, estimated recurrence intervals of 500 years or longer, may exceed thresholds of competence otherwise unattainable in the ‘normal’ record resulting in ‘irreparable’ transformations of valley landforms.

Denudation of hillslopes by mass wasting during relatively rare events can also be related to mean rates of denudation and to recovery of hillslope surfaces after scarring by different kinds of landslides. Measured recovery times described in the literature vary from less than a decade for some tropical regions to decades or more in temperate regions. Recurrence intervals of high magnitude storms which trigger mass wasting range from 1 to 2 years in some tropical areas, to 3 or 4 per hundred years in some areas of seasonal rainfall and to 100 or more years in some temperate regions. The effectiveness of climatic events on both hillslopes and rivers is not separable from gradient, lithology or other variables which control both thresholds of activity and recovery rate.