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Abstract

At the geological time scale, the way in which the erosion of drainage catchments responds to tectonic uplift and climate changes depends on boundary conditions. In particular, sediment accumulation and erosion occurring at the edge of mountain ranges should influence the base level of mountain catchments, as well as sediment and water discharges. In this paper, we use a landform evolution model (LEM) to investigate how the presence of alluvial sedimentation at range fronts affects catchment responses to climatic or tectonic changes. This approach is applied to a 25 km × 50 km domain, in which the central part is uplifted progressively to simulate the growth of a small mountain range. The LEM includes different slope and river processes that can compete with each other. This competition leads to ‘transport-limited’, ‘detachment-limited’ or ‘mixed’ transport conditions in mountains at dynamic equilibrium. In addition, two end-member algorithms (the channellized-flow and the sheet-flow regimes) have been included for the alluvial fan-flow regime. The three transport conditions and the two flow algorithms represent six different models for which the responses to increase of rock uplift rate and/or cyclic variation of the precipitation rate are investigated.

Our results indicate that addition of an alluvial apron increases the long-term mountain denudation. In response to uplift, mountain rivers adapt their profile in two successive stages; first by propagation of an erosion wave and then by slowly increasing their channel gradients. During the second stage, the erosion rate is almost uniform across the catchment area at any one time, which suggests that dynamic equilibrium has been reached, although the balance between erosion and rock uplift rates has not yet been achieved. This second stage is initiated by the uplift of the mountain river outlets because of sedimentation aggradation at the mountain front. The response time depends on the type of water flow imposed on the alluvial fans domains (× by 1.5 for channelized flow regime and by 10 for the sheet flow one).

Cyclic variations of precipitation rate generate cyclic incisions in the alluvial apron. These incision pulses create knick-points in the river profile in the case of ‘detachment-limited’ and ‘mixed’ river conditions, which could be mistaken for tectonically induced knick-points. ‘Transport-limited’ conditions do not create such knick-points, but nevertheless trigger erosion in catchments. The feedbacks linked to sedimentation and erosion at range front can therefore control catchment incision or aggradation. In addition, random river captures in the range front trigger auto-cyclic erosion pulses in the catchment, capable of generating incision–aggradation cycles.