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The development and change over time (evolution) of geomorphic, soil, hydrological, and ecosystems (Earth surface systems; ESS) is often, perhaps mostly, characterized by multiple potential developmental trajectories. That is, rather than an inevitable monotonic progression toward a single stable state or climax or mature form, often there exist multiple stable states or potentially unstable outcomes, and multiple possible developmental pathways. Until late in the 20th century, basic tenets of geosciences, ecology, and pedology emphasized single-path, single-outcome conceptual models such as classical vegetation succession; development of mature, climax, or zonal soils; or attainment of steady-state or some other form of stable equilibrium. As evidence accumulated of ESS evolution with, e.g., nonequilibrium dynamics, alternative stable states, divergent evolution, and path dependency, the "headline" was the existence of > 2 potential pathways, contesting and contrasting with the single-path frameworks. Now it is appropriate to address the question of why the number of actually observed pathways is relatively small.The purpose of this post is to explore why some developmental sequences are rare vs. common; why some are non-recurring (path extinction), and some are reinforced.


In a 2009 article I introduced the concept of a geomorphological niche, defined as the resources available to drive or support a particular geomorphic process (the concept has not caught on). The niche is defined in terms of a landscape evolution space (LES), given by

where H is height above a base level, rho is the density of the geological parent material, g is the gravity constant, and A is surface area. The k’s are factors representing the inputs of solar energy and precipitation, and Pgrepresents the geomorphically significant proportion of biological productivity (see this for the  background and justification).


Just published in Geomorphology:

Samonil, P., Danek, P., Adam, D., Phillips, J.D. 2017. Breakage or uprooting: how tree death affects hillslope processes in old-growth temperate forestsGeomorphology 299: 276-284. 

The abstract is below:

Posted 14 November 2017



Back in 2006, novelist and country music singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman ran (unsuccessfully) for governor of Texas. His campaign slogan, a rather pointed reference to the fact that recent occupants of the office George W. Bush and Rick Perry were not the sharpest tools in the shed, was "how hard could it be?" I can't answer that, but I can answer, after a fashion, the question of how complex or simple an Earth surface system can be.


Axiomatic approaches to science and mathematics depend on an underlying set of statements, principles, or propositions that apply to all situations within the domain of study. The axioms run the gamut from undisputed universal laws to widely or even universally accepted but unproved or unprovable generalizations, to propositional stipulations adopted for analytical convenience or because they raise interesting questions.

Examples abound in mathematics and formal logic, and in science, engineering and technological applications of math and logic. Although it is only occasionally referred to as such, the laws of stratigraphy (details in any geology textbook) form an axiomatic approach to sedimentology, sedimentary geology, and related palaeoenvironmental studies. The laws of original horizontality, lateral continuity, superposition, and cross-cutting relationships are assumed in this approach to apply to all sedimentary deposits, and therefore form an axiomatic system for interpretation.

Robustness of Chronosequences

The latest issue of Ecological Modelling (vol. 298) is out, a special issue on complexity of soils and hydrology in ecosystems. My article, The Robustness of Chronosequences, is available here. There's a lot of other interesting stuff in the special issue, too. Check it out!



Several studies have noted the temporal coincidence between shoreline erosion around some major deltas (e.g., Nile, Mississippi, Ebro), and the reduction of stream sediment loads due to reforestation, soil conservation practices, and trapping of river sediment behind dams. There are, of course, excellent reasons to suspect a causal link, but the link itself has not, in my view, been fully established.



Out on the trails of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, this morning, I got to thinking about William Morris Davis’ “cycle of erosion” conceptual model (also called the geographical or geomorphological cycle). The drive-by, oversimplified version is that landscape evolution starts with uplift of a more-or-less planar, low relief surface. Weathering and erosion goes to work, and results in an initial stage of increasing relief as streams carve valleys, and slope processes operate on the slopes thereby created. Eventually, however, as the streams begin to approach base level, a new stage of decreasing relief begins as hilltops and drainage divides are lowered and valleys infilled. This continues until the entire landscape is about as close to baselevel as the geophysics of mass transport will allow, creating a low-relief, almost-planar surface called a peneplain. At some point a new episode of uplift occurs and the cycle begins anew.

I was thinking of this because many landscapes in the world, like the one I was viewing this morning, do give the impression of a dissected plateau or a low-relief surface into which denudational processes have cut.


The published version of Badass Geomorphology is hot off the press in Earth Surface Processes & Landforms. You can download it here.


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