Dynamics of the stream-power river incision model: Implications for height limits of mountain ranges, landscape response timescales, and research needs


  • Kelin X. Whipple,

  • Gregory E. Tucker


The longitudinal profiles of bedrock channels are a major component of the relief structure of mountainous drainage basins and therefore limit the elevation of peaks and ridges. Further, bedrock channels communicate tectonic and climatic signals across the landscape, thus dictating, to first order, the dynamic response of mountainous landscapes to external forcings. We review and explore the stream-power erosion model in an effort to (1) elucidate its consequences in terms of large-scale topographic (fluvial) relief and its sensitivity to tectonic and climatic forcing, (2) derive a relationship for system response time to tectonic perturbations, (3) determine the sensitivity of model behavior to various model parameters, and (4) integrate the above to suggest useful guidelines for further study of bedrock channel systems and for future refinement of the streampower erosion law. Dimensional analysis reveals that the dynamic behavior of the stream-power erosion model is governed by a single nondimensional group that we term the uplift-erosion number, greatly reducing the number of variables that need to be considered in the sensitivity analysis. The degree of nonlinearity in the relationship between stream incision rate and channel gradient (slope exponent n) emerges as a fundamental unknown. The physics of the active erosion processes directly influence this nonlinearity, which is shown to dictate the relationship between the uplift-erosion number, the equilibrium stream channel gradient, and the total fluvial relief of mountain ranges. Similarly, the predicted response time to changes in rock uplift rate is shown to depend on climate, rock strength, and the magnitude of tectonic perturbation, with the slope exponent n controlling the degree of dependence on these various factors. For typical drainage basin geometries the response time is relatively insensitive to the size of the system. Work on the physics of bedrock erosion processes, their sensitivity to extreme floods, their transient responses to sudden changes in climate or uplift rate, and the scaling of local rock erosion studies to reach-scale modeling studies are most sorely needed.