Water Resources Research

A mechanistic model for river incision into bedrock by saltating bed load



[1] Abrasion by bed load is a ubiquitous and sometimes dominant erosional mechanism for fluvial incision into bedrock. Here we develop a model for bedrock abrasion by saltating bed load wherein the wear rate depends linearly on the flux of impact kinetic energy normal to the bed and on the fraction of the bed that is not armored by transient deposits of alluvium. We assume that the extent of alluvial bed cover depends on the ratio of coarse sediment supply to bed load transport capacity. Particle impact velocity and impact frequency depend on saltation trajectories, which can be predicted using empirical functions of excess shear stress. The model predicts a nonlinear dependence of bedrock abrasion rate on both sediment supply and transport capacity. Maximum wear rates occur at moderate relative supply rates due to the tradeoff between the availability of abrasive tools and the partial alluviation of the bedrock bed. Maximum wear rates also occur at intermediate levels of excess shear stress due to the reduction in impact frequency as grain motion approaches the threshold of suspension. Measurements of bedrock wear in a laboratory abrasion mill agree well with model predictions and allow calibration of the one free model parameter, which relates rock strength to rock resistance to abrasive wear. The model results suggest that grain size and sediment supply are fundamental controls on bedrock incision rates, not only by bed load abrasion but also by all other mechanisms that require bedrock to be exposed in the channel bed.