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Evolution of transient topography on passive margins: A study of landscape disequilibrium in the southern Appalachian Mountains
Prince, Philip Sosebee
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The mechanism through which the Appalachian Mountains have maintained moderate relief some ~300 Myr after the cessation of mountain building has long puzzled geomorphologists. As recent studies have shown that Appalachian exhumation has occurred at slow rates consistent with isostatic rebound of thickened crust, the driving forces behind localized episodes of accelerated incision and the associated rugged topography have been difficult to explain given the absence of tectonic uplift. This study uses previously undocumented relict fluvial gravels and knickpoint location to confirm the role of drainage rearrangement in producing local base level drop and subsequent basin-scale transient incision in the southern Appalachians. This process is fundamentally driven by the high potential energy of streams flowing across the elevated, slowly eroding Blue Ridge Plateau relative to the present Atlantic and landward interior base levels. Gravel deposits confirm that repeated capture of landward-draining Plateau streams by Atlantic basin streams, whose immediate base level is 250-300 m lower, forces episodic rapid incision and overall erosional retreat of the Blue Ridge Escarpment along the Plateau margin. The distribution of knickpoints, bedrock gorges, and relict surfaces in the interior of the Plateau indicate that the New River, which drains to the continental interior, is actively incising the low-relief Plateau surface due to episodic drops in landward base level. The origin of landward base level perturbation is unclear, but it may be the result of glacially-driven shortening and steepening of the lower New River during the Pleistocene. Collectively, these data indicate that rapid base level drop through drainage reorganization can energize streams in otherwise stable landscapes and accelerate fluvial incision and relief production without uplift of the land surface. This process is likely quite significant in post-orogenic settings, where inherited drainage patterns may not reflect the most direct, and thus energetically appropriate, path to present base level. Passive margins may therefore never achieve a topographic steady-state, despite uniformly slow and constant uplift due to isostatic rebound.