Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface Research Spotlight

River Slope Connects Modern Topography with Ancient Tectonics

Scientists create models to help them figure out how the slope of a river can record ancient tectonic activity.


Scientists believe that topographic features are shaped by the tectonic history of the surrounding environment. However, although models exist that relate a known tectonic history to the expected shape of the rivers, the opposite problem of finding the tectonic history that resulted in an observed river-dominated landscape remains challenging. Past researchers have used smoothing of topographic data to find averages of tectonic information or have attempted many different tectonic histories and compared their expected output against the real topography. Now, Goren et al. have expanded on these methods with two new models.

The authors created the models using concepts of linear inversion, which uses observable features from the topography to infer the unobservable parameters that shaped the topography. This allowed the authors to characterize the best fit tectonic uplift history of a given region using topographic data from rivers. As a case study, the authors applied their models to the Inyo Mountains in California by simultaneously analyzing six rivers in the mountain range for their topographic data.

The authors found that the region had been experiencing accelerated uplift for the past 4 million years and that the rate of uplift decreased farther away from the fault that bounds the mountain range. With these new tools, future researchers will be able to more accurately connect modern topographic features with past tectonic movements. (Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, doi:10.1002/2014JF003079, 2014)

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2014), River slope connects modern topography with ancient tectonics, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(49), 472, doi:10.1002/2014EO490012.

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