How Landscapes React to Climate Change

New study enables prediction of erosion rates in times of climate change.

sOptimo algorithm, climate change

In a study recently published by the scientific journal Science Advances, researchers from the California Institute of Technology, RWTH Aachen, and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences demonstrate that the detected rise in erosion in glaciated landscapes is just a statistical effect. So far, it was assumed that there was an actual rise in erosion rates in these landscapes due to climate change.

Measurements of erosion rates of landscapes dominated by river incision, by contrast, allow for a direct comparison between past conditions and conditions today. For the purpose of the study, erosion rate data from all over the planet were gathered, for small time spans of just a few days as well as time spans of millions of years. To detect and quantify the erosion behaviors of landscapes is important for adaptation to changing climate conditions.

The investigations demonstrate that periods of no or low erosion, called erosion hiatuses, differ in duration, depending on climate conditions. This can be seen, in particular, in glaciated landscapes. By contrast with landscapes marked by river incision, glaciated landscapes show a seemingly exponential increase of erosion rates. This is due to the natural, stronger variability of erosion processes and the associated erosion hiatuses, which can last longer than several 100,000 years.

This effect was not taken into account in earlier studies, resulting in statistically biased results. The new insights facilitate prediction of erosion rates in time of climate change, which is significant for future human settlement and economic activities.