Where tectonic processes proceed quickly it is only to be expected that the land surface undergoes dramatic changes and that big features form. Exactly which processes lay behind very striking landforms may have been worked out long ago; or old ideas from the heyday of geomorphology have perhaps lingered longer than they should. Two tectonically active regions that have a long history of study are the Himalaya and Iceland: one a model of long-lived and rapid uplift driven by collisional tectonics; the other likewise, as a product of extension and rapid build-up of flood basalt flows. Major features of both have been shown to be not quite what they seem.
Substantial parts of the India-Asia collision zone contain broad patches of high, low-relief plateaus separated by deeply incised river gorges. In its eastern parts rise 3 of the largest rivers in SE Asia: the Yangtse; the Mekong and the Salween, which flow roughly parallel to the east and south-east for about 1000 km from their sources in the Tibetan Plateau. Their trajectories partly follow some enormous strike-slip fault that accommodated the relative motion of two continent-bearing plates over the last 50 million years. As well as the crustal thickening that attended the collision, vast amounts of uplifted material have been eroded from the three major gorges. Thickening and unloading have been the key to producing the largest tracts of high land on the planet. Yet between the gorges and their many tributaries in the eastern part of the collision zone are many tracts of high land with only moderate relief rather than sharp ridges. Because the Eurasian plate prior to India’s impact might reasonably be expected to have been only moderately high, if not low lying, and with a mature and muted landscape, a long-lived theory has been that these elevated plateaus are uplifted relics of this former landscape that were dissected by progressively deepening river incision. Much the same idea has been applied to similar mega features, and even coincident peaks in more completely eroded highlands.
In the India-Asian collision zone the supposedly ‘relic’ plateaus have been used to reconstruct the pre-collision land surface and the degree of bulging it has undergone since. However, the advent of accurate digital terrain elevation data has enabled the modelling of not only the large rivers but also of the tributary streams that make up major drainage. As well as the directional aspects of drainages their along-channel slopes can be analysed (Yong, R. et al. 2015. In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption. Nature, v. 520, p. 526-529). Rong Yang of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and colleagues from the same department and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel have been able to show that matters are far more complex than once believed. The tributary drainages of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween gorges appear to have been repeatedly been disrupted by the complexities of deformation. One important factor has been drainage capture or piracy, in which drainages with greater energy erode towards the heads of their catchments until they intercept a major drainage in another sub-basin, thereby ‘stealing’ the energy of the water that it carries. The ‘pirate’ stream then erodes more powerfully in its lower reaches, whereas the basin burgled of much of its energy becomes more sluggishly evolving thereafter and increasingly left anomalous high in the regional terrain: it evolves to liken what previously it had been supposed to be – a relic of the pre-collision landscape.
Many of the rivers in Iceland occupy gorges that contain a succession of large waterfalls. Upstream of each is a wide rock terrace, and downstream the gorge is eroded into such a terrace. Much of Iceland is composed of lava flows piled one above another, as befits the only substantial land that straddles a constructive plate margin – the mid-Atlantic Ridge. Being famous also for its substantial ice caps that are relics of one far larger during the last glacial maximum, it has proved irresistible for geomorphologists to assign the gorge-fall-terrace repetition to gradual uplift due to isostatic rebound as the former ice cap melted and unloaded the underlying lithosphere. As relative sea-level fell each river gained more gravitational potential energy to cut back up its channel, which resulted in a succession of upstream migrating waterfalls and gorges below them. Individual lava flows, being highly resistant to abrasion cease to be affected once cut by a gorge; hence the terraces. But it is now possible to establish the date when each terrace first became exposed to cosmic-ray bombardment, using the amount of cosmogenic 3He that has accumulated in the basalts that form the terrace surfaces (Baynes, E.R. et al. 2015. Erosion during extreme flood events dominates Holocene canyon evolution in northeast Iceland. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, doi:10.1073/pnas.1415443112).
The British-German team from the University of Edinburgh and Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum, Potsdam worked on terraces of the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, discovering that three terraces formed abruptly in the Holocene, at 9, 5 and 2 ka ago, with no evidence for any gradual erosion by abrasion. Each terrace was cut suddenly, probably aided by the highly jointed nature of the overlying lava flow that would encourage toppling of blocks given sufficient energy. The team suggests that each represents not stages in uplift, but individual megafloods, perhaps caused by catastrophic glacial melting during subglacial eruptions or failures of dams formed by moraines or ice lobes.