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Department of Geology and Geophysics

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UW Researchers Discover Sediment Size Does Matter in High-Elevation Erosion Rates

young wman sitting on the ground digging on a mountain sideNovember 16, 2015 — When it comes to sediment in the High Sierra, size does matter, according to two University of Wyoming researchers.

For the past four summers, Cliff Riebe, a UW associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and Claire Lukens, a UW doctoral student majoring in geology, have studied sediment in Inyo Creek, in California’s High Serra.

The two found that cold, steep, high-elevation slopes with less vegetation produce coarser and larger sediment than low-elevation, gentle slopes. This finding quantifies how sediment production varies with topography and suggests that variations in climate, topography and weathering rates may shape the evolution of mountain landscapes by influencing sediment size.

Riebe is lead author of a paper, titled “Climate and Topography Control the Size and Flux of Sediment Produced on Steep Mountain Slopes,” that was published online Nov. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Lukens, from Seattle, Wash., is co-author. The journal is one of the world's most prestigious multidisciplinary scientific serials, with coverage spanning the biological, physical and social sciences.

Both the size and flux of sediment from slopes can influence channel incision, making sediment production and erosion central to the interplay of climate and tectonics in landscape evolution, Riebe says.

“Rivers need tools to cut into their beds,” Riebe says. “Water alone can’t do the job. And the bigger the sediment is, the easier it is for the river to carve into the landscape. So, when it comes to sediment, it turns out that size really does matter.”

“Sediment can be as large as boulders at higher elevations and as fine as sand at lower elevations on the landscape,” Lukens adds. “We know this is true from our analyses of sediment in the stream. In effect, we are using geochemistry to interrogate stream sediment about where it comes from and how fast it is eroding.”

woman in a mountain meadow with many large rocky outcroppingsErosion rates are commonly measured using cosmogenic nuclides, which serve as tracers of erosion because they accumulate in minerals in the uppermost few meters of rock and soil during the exhumation to the landscape surface. For example, the isotope beryllium 10 is produced from oxygen by nuclear reactions in quartz as the mineral rises to the surface.

Riebe and Lukens combined this technique with another sediment tracing tool called detrital thermochronometry, which identifies the elevations of hill slopes where sediment was produced by weathering of underlying bedrock. The two used computer simulations to determine the statistical significance of their findings.

“This is the first time these tools have been combined in this way,” Lukens says.

For a long time, geologists have been able to quantify how fast sediment is eroding from landscapes. Until this UW research, there has been no complementary method to quantify how the size distribution of sediment particles varies across slopes where the sediment is produced from bedrock by weathering and erosion.

Riebe says their sediment findings could be used for the same purpose in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

“The landscapes in Wyoming also would be an interesting place to ask questions, and see how different or similar they are to the Sierras,” Lukens says.

Leonard Sklar, a professor of earth and climate sciences at San Francisco State University, and David Shuster, an associate professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California-Berkeley, were other co-authors of the paper.

Photos: (Top-left) Claire Lukens, a UW doctoral student co-author of a paper in PNAS, samples sediment from hill slopes in Inyo Creek. Hill slope samples were used to determine the intensity of chemical weathering across the landscape, which may help explain why the size of eroded sediment varies from place to place. (Marlie Malone Photo). 

(Bottom-right) Claire Lukens hikes up into the study site at Inyo Creek, in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Large sediment (some as large as house-sized boulders) come mostly from the upper elevations, where steep bare bedrock slopes erode quickly. (Leonard Sklar Photo)


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