Trouble with diffusion: Reassessing hillslope erosion laws with a particle-based model

Authors

  • Gregory E. Tucker,

    1. Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
    2. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
    Search for more papers by this author
  • D. Nathan Bradley

    1. Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
    2. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
    Search for more papers by this author

Abstract

[1] Many geomorphic systems involve a broad distribution of grain motion length scales, ranging from a few particle diameters to the length of an entire hillslope or stream. Studies of analogous physical systems have revealed that such broad motion distributions can have a significant impact on macroscale dynamics and can violate the assumptions behind standard, local gradient flux laws. Here, a simple particle-based model of sediment transport on a hillslope is used to study the relationship between grain motion statistics and macroscopic landform evolution. Surface grains are dislodged by random disturbance events with probabilities and distances that depend on local microtopography. Despite its simplicity, the particle model reproduces a surprisingly broad range of slope forms, including asymmetric degrading scarps and cinder cone profiles. At low slope angles the dynamics are diffusion like, with a short-range, thin-tailed hop length distribution, a parabolic, convex upward equilibrium slope form, and a linear relationship between transport rate and gradient. As slope angle steepens, the characteristic grain motion length scale begins to approach the length of the slope, leading to planar equilibrium forms that show a strongly nonlinear correlation between transport rate and gradient. These high-probability, long-distance motions violate the locality assumption embedded in many common gradient-based geomorphic transport laws. The example of a degrading scarp illustrates the potential for grain motion dynamics to vary in space and time as topography evolves. This characteristic renders models based on independent, stationary statistics inapplicable. An accompanying analytical framework based on treating grain motion as a survival process is briefly outlined.

Ancillary