environment

DYNAMIC EQUILIBRIUM (?) IN RIVERS

Nicholas Pinter, a Southern Illinois University geomorphologist, gave a nice talk yesterday on rivers and flooding in the 21st century as part of UK’s Water Week. Pinter’s talk got me to thinking about the concept of “equilibrium” in environmental systems and what it means to both geoscientists and laypersons. Pinter correctly noted that rivers tend toward dynamic equilibrium, and more specifically, dynamic metastable equilibrium. This means three things: First, the system (river) is more or less constantly changing (the dynamic part). Second, equilibrium is of the type envisioned in mathematics and systems theory—that is, a state or condition the system settles into after a change or perturbation, with no further connotation other than that the response to the change has run its course (I’ve called this “relaxation time equilibrium” in my work). Third, “metastable” means that these equilibrium states are not necessarily stable and self-maintaining, and may be sensitive to future disturbances—even relatively small ones. Pinter’s message is that dynamic equilibrium in rivers means that rivers are constantly changing.

THE TRIAD

Explaining and understanding Earth surface systems almost always requires some triangulation between three different sets of factors. The first, examples of which are shown on the lower left corner of the triangle below, are general principles and relationships that apply everywhere and always. Second, on the upper point, are environmental factors--characteristics of locations and regions such as climate, geology, etc. On the lower right of the triangle is the third set of factors, related to past events and time available for the system to develop.

This can be generalized as laws, place, and history, as shown below. 

BADASS GEOMORPHOLOGY

Yesterday I was honored to give the annual Linton Award lecture to the British Society for Geomorphology at the University of Manchester. Many thanks to the BSG for making my attendance possible, and to the U. Manchester geography department for putting on a good meeting. This is the abstract of my talk, entitled Badass Geomorphology:

RIVER RESTORATION & REHABILITATION

 

Yesterday I heard a very interesting river restoration workshop at the British Society for Geomorphology meeting. What I’m about to discuss was not the focus of the workshop, but it was triggered by thinking about geomorphology, hydrology, and river science in stream rehabilitation and restoration, which is a big business now.

The stream restoration problem is often portrayed as something like this:

 

That is, the stream is currently in some kind of degraded, suboptimal, unwanted state. The goal is to restore it to a “natural” or some more desired condition, often conceived as whatever the stream was like before the degradation commenced. There are a number of problems with this, one being that in many cases the pre-existing state is not known. Even if it is, since rivers—like other landforms and ecosystems—are dynamic and changeable, there is no particular scientific reason to believe that, in the absence of human-driven changes, the river would still be now as it was decades ago.

CAROLINE, THE THERMODYNAMIC MIRACLE

"In each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive, meeting, siring this precise son; that exact daughter...until your mother loves a man ...and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you...(it's) like turning air to gold... a thermodynamic miracle."

Those words, from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” indicate that despite the common features of all members of our species, the biological laws and relationships that apply to us all, each of us is unique in some way. I am reminded on this on the occasion of the birth of my first grandchild, Caroline Harper Phillips, yesterday.

 

Caroline Harper Phillips, age <1 day

 

TOPOPHILIA, TOBACCO, & TACTICAL WEAPONS

 

Topophilia is the affective bond between people and places, and also the title of an influential 1990 book by human geographer Yi Fu Tuan. I was thinking about this yesterday as my wife and I drove across the North Carolina coastal plain to visit relatives. Highway 70 from Raleigh east toward the coast is not a scenic drive by any objective standard. The topography is flat and monotonous, and the road corridor is infested with strip malls, billboards, convenience stores, and tourist traps.

Yet, as it does every year when I make the trek east from Kentucky, this crappy stretch of highway triggered fond associations with eastern North Carolina—topophilia, I reckon. I am a native of the region, taught for nine years at East Carolina University, and my wife’s family lives there. My post-dissertation field research sites were there, and there are some sites I still monitor during my family visits.

 

AMPLIFIERS & FILTERS

 

A big problem with predicting responses to global climate change (or other environmental changes) is that they are nonlinear and thus disproportionate. Sometimes large changes can have relatively small responses, while in other cases small changes can have disproportionately large impacts.

Responses to environmental change are sometimes characterized by amplifiers—phenomena that reinforce or exaggerate the effects of the change. For example, if coastal land is subsiding, this amplifies the effects of sea level rise. Or, when warming results in permafrost thawing, this releases methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, this leads to further warming. However, there are also filters—phenomena that resist, offset, or diminish the effects of the change. For instance, if coastal land is tectonically or isostatically uplifting, this can offset or even eliminate effects of sea level rise with respect to coastal submergence. Or, if warming results in increased cloud cover, which reflects more radiation, this counteracts the warming.

OCBILs & YODFELs

 

I recently stumbled upon the OCBIL theory. In the words of Hopper (2009): “OCBIL theory aims to develop an integrated series of hypotheses explaining the evolution and ecology of, and best conservation practices for, biota on very old, climatically buffered, infertile landscapes (OCBILs). Conventional theory for ecology and evolu- tionary and conservation biology has developed primarily from data on species and communities from young, often disturbed, fertile landscapes (YODFELs), mainly in the Northern Hemisphere.” As a geomorphologist, and in particular a biogeomorphologist interested in coevolution of landscapes, biota, and soils, the OCBIL-YODFEL contrast is extremely interesting—mainly because it implies a key role for landscape age, stability, and geomorphic disturbance regimes in the development of ecosystems and evolution of biodiversity patterns.

PHYTOTARIA, SOILS, & LANDFORMS

 

One of my major research interests is the coevolution of soils, landforms, and biota. I’ve been working in this area pretty steadily since about 2000, but until 2013 I was completely unaware of some work being done along the same lines, over about the same time period. This is the work of W.H. Verboom and J.S. Pate from Western Australia, who among other things developed the “phytotarium concept.” Phytotarium defines the specific plants and microbial associates driving specific pedological changes during niche construction. This concept, and a wealth of work on biogenic origins of pedological and geomorphological features such as clay pavements, texture-contrast (duplex, as they call them in Australia) soils, and laterites, was highly relevant to my own thinking (e.g., Phillips, 2009a; 2009b), but though I consider myself familiar with the biogeomorphology and pedogenesis literature, then and now, I had somehow missed it.

Deep sandy duplex (vertical texture contrast) soils, Western Australia. Photo credit: Dept. of Agriculture & Food, Western Australia.

Sycamores and Hillslopes

Below are some recent photographs of sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis) in limestone bedrock at Herrington Lake, Kentucky (about37.78o N, 84.71o W). As you can see, the tree roots and trunks exploit joints in the rock, and accelerate weathering both by physically displacing limestone slabs and widening joints by root growth, and by facilitating biochemical weathering along both live and dead roots.

Sycamores rock

These are some nice examples of root/bedrock interaction, and the general phenomena are not uncommon, though usually much more difficult to see. The Herrington Lake shores also appear to illustrate a process by which the sycamores accelerate weathering and mass movements (other trees are also involved, but Platanus occidentalis seems to be the most common and effective):

1. Plants colonize the exposed bedrock, with roots exploiting bedrock joints.

2. Tree roots accelerate weathering and loosen joint blocks.

3. While the tree is still alive, root growth envelopes rock fragments and the trees provide a physical barrier to downslope transport.

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