Fluvial incision into bedrock: Insights from morphometric analysis and numerical modeling of gorges incising glacial hanging valleys (Western Alps, France)



[1] Bedrock gorges incising glacial hanging valleys potentially allow measurements of fluvial bedrock incision in mountainous relief. Using digital elevation models, topographic maps, and field reconnaissance, we identified and characterized 30 tributary hanging valleys incised by gorges near their confluence with trunk streams in the Romanche watershed, French Western Alps. Longitudinal profiles of these tributaries are all convex and have abrupt knickpoints at the upper limit of oversteepened gorge reaches. We reconstructed initial glacial profiles from glacially polished bedrock knobs surrounding the gorges in order to quantify the amount of fluvial incision and knickpoint retreat. From morphometric analyses, we find that mean channel gradients and widths, as well as knickpoint retreat rates, display a drainage area dependence modulated by bedrock lithology. However, there appears to be no relation between horizontal retreat and vertical downwearing of knickpoints. Assuming a postglacial origin of these gorges, our results imply high postglacial fluvial incision (0.5–15 mm yr−1) and knickpoint retreat (1–200 mm yr−1) rates that are, however, consistent with previous estimates. Numerical modeling was used to test the capacity of different fluvial incision models to predict the inferred evolution of the gorges. Results from simple end-member models suggest transport-limited behavior of the bedrock gorges. A more sophisticated model including dynamic width adjustment and sediment-dependent incision rates predicts present-day channel geometry only if a significant supply of sediment from the gorge sidewalls (∼10 mm yr−1) is triggered by gorge deepening, combined with pronounced inhibition of bedrock incision by sediment transport and deposition.