In a new study, scientists from the University of Bristol calculated the effects of rainfall and provided detailed insights into the evolution of peaks and valleys over millions of years. The study, which focused on the mightiest mountain ranges – the Himalayas – could predict the possible effects of climate change on landscapes and, therefore, on human life.
Their study also proves that rain can really move mountains.
The lead author Dr. Byron Adams, Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow of the Royal Society at the university’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “It may seem intuitive that more rain can form mountains by cutting rivers into rocks faster. However, scientists have also believed that rain can erode a landscape fast enough to essentially “suck” the rocks out of the ground and pull mountains up very quickly. Both theories have been debated for decades because the measurements required to prove them are so meticulously complicated. This is what makes this discovery such an exciting breakthrough, as it strongly supports the notion that atmospheric and reliable earth processes are closely related. “
The study was carried out in the central and eastern Himalayas of Bhutan and Nepal. Using cosmic clocks in grains of sand, scientists have measured the speed at which rivers erode the rocks below.
Dr. Adams said: “When a cosmic particle from space reaches the earth, it will likely hit grains of sand on hills as they are transported towards rivers. In this case, some atoms in each grain of sand can turn into a rare element. By counting how many atoms of this element are in a bag of sand, we can calculate how long the sand has been there and how quickly the landscape has eroded. “
“As soon as we have erosion rates from the entire mountain range, we can compare them with fluctuations in river steepness and precipitation. However, such a comparison is extremely problematic because it is difficult to create each data point and the statistical interpretation of all the data together is complicated. “
Scientists have overcome this challenge by combining regression techniques with numerical models of river erosion.
They tested several numerical models to reproduce the observed erosion rate pattern in Bhutan and Nepal. What is fascinating is that one of the models accurately predicts the measured erosion rates. The model also enabled them to quantify how precipitation affects erosion rates in rough terrain.
Research Associate Professor Kelin Whipple, Professor of Geology at ASU, said: “Our results show the importance of taking precipitation into account when assessing patterns of tectonic activity based on topography, and provide a major step forward in examining the extent to which climate-induced surface erosion controls the rate of hatch from tectonic faults can. ”
The study results also have a significant impact on land use management, infrastructure maintenance and the hazards in the Himalayas.
In the Himalayas, there is an ever-present risk that high erosion rates can drastically increase sedimentation behind dams and endanger critical hydropower projects. The results suggest that increased rainfall can erode the slopes and increase the risk of debris or landslides, some of which can be large enough to contain the river and create a new hazard – flooding from lake eruptions.
Dr. Adams added: “Our data and analysis provide an effective tool for estimating erosion patterns in mountainous landscapes such as the Himalayas, providing invaluable insight into the dangers affecting the hundreds of millions of people who live in and at the foot of these mountains. ”
The research was funded by the Royal Society, the UK Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), and the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
- BA Adams et al. Climate controls on erosion in tectonically active landscapes, Science Advances (2020). DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.aaz3166
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