Erosion Rates in a Transient Landscape, Grand Staircase, Southern Utah

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Geological Society of America

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Cosmogenic 10Be concentrations in alluvial sediment are widely used to infer long-term, catchment-averaged erosion rates based on the assumption that the landscape is in mass-flux steady state. However, many landscapes are out of equilibrium over millennial time scales due to tectonic and climatic forcing. The Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau (North America) is a transient landscape, adjusting to base-level fall from the carving of the Grand Canyon, and is characterized by cliff-bench topography caused by differential erosion of lithologic units. The 10Be concentrations from 52 alluvial and colluvial samples, collected in nested fashion from five catchments, produced inferred erosion rates ranging from 20 to >3500 m/m.y. (or mm/k.y.). We attribute this high variance in part to lithologic-controlled steepness and hotspots of erosion related to cliff retreat along the White Cliffs (escarpment near Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah), as well as headward drainage expansion along the uppermost Pink Cliffs (escarpment within Bryce Canyon National Park). Results from the downslope Vermillion Cliffs (near Kanab) indicate lower erosion rates despite similar slope and rock types, suggesting knick-zone migration has passed that lower region of our study area. The 10Be concentrations measured along trunk streams systematically match local, subcatchment erosion rates, with muted influence from upstream sediment sources. This is consistent with intermittent sediment conveyance between cliff and bench terrain, with sediment storage and localized release associated with ephemeral arroyo systems in the region. Therefore, while detrital cosmogenic nuclide records in transient landscapes may not directly reflect upstream catchment-averaged erosion rates, 10Be inventories can provide insight into unsteady upslope-directed erosion and downslope-directed sediment conveyance in these dynamic landscapes.

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