The roles of erosion rate and rock strength in the evolution of canyons along the Colorado River

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For this dissertation, three separate papers explore the study areas of the western Grand Canyon, the Grand Staircase (as related to Grand Canyon) and Desolation Canyon on the Green River

For this dissertation, three separate papers explore the study areas of the western Grand Canyon, the Grand Staircase (as related to Grand Canyon) and Desolation Canyon on the Green River in Utah.

In western Grand Canyon, I use comparative geomorphology between the Grand Canyon and the Grand Wash Cliffs (GWC). We propose the onset of erosion of the GWC is caused by slip on the Grand Wash Fault that formed between 18 and 12 million years ago. Hillslope angle and channel steepness are higher in Grand Canyon than along the Grand Wash Cliffs despite similar rock types, climate and base level fall magnitude. These experimental controls allow inference that the Grand Canyon is younger and eroding at a faster rate than the Grand Wash Cliffs.

The Grand Staircase is the headwaters of some of the streams that flow into Grand Canyon. A space-for-time substitution of erosion rates, supported by landscape simulations, implies that the Grand Canyon is the result of an increase in base level fall rate, with the older, slower base level fall rate preserved in the Grand Staircase. Our data and analyses also support a younger, ~6-million-year estimate of the age of Grand Canyon that is likely related to the integration of the Colorado River from the Colorado Plateau to the Basin and Range. Complicated cliff-band erosion and its effect on cosmogenic erosion rates are also explored, guiding interpretation of isotopic data in landscapes with stratigraphic variation in quartz and rock strength.

Several hypotheses for the erosion of Desolation Canyon are tested and refuted, leaving one plausible conclusion. I infer that the Uinta Basin north of Desolation Canyon is eroding slowly and that its form represents a slow, stable base level fall rate. Downstream of Desolation Canyon, the Colorado River is inferred to have established itself in the exhumed region of Canyonlands and to have incised to near modern depths prior to the integration of the Green River and the production of relief in Desolation Canyon. Analysis of incision and erosion rates in the region suggests integration is relatively recent.