Climate and its influence on hydrology and weathering is a key driver of surface processes on Earth. Despite its clear importance to hazard generation, fluvial sediment transport and erosion, the drawdown of atmospheric CO2 via the rock cycle, and feedbacks between climate and tectonics, quantifying climatic controls on long-term erosion rates has proven to be one of the grand problems in geomorphology. In fact, recent attempts addressing this problem using cosmogenic radionuclide (CRN) derived erosion rates suggest very weak climatic controls on millennial-scale erosion rates contrary to expectations. In this work, two challenges are addressed that may be impeding progress on this problem.
The first challenge is choosing appropriate climate metrics that are closely tied to erosional processes. For example, in fluvial landscapes, most runoff events do little to no geomorphic work due to erosion thresholds, and event-scale variability dictates how frequently these thresholds are exceeded. By analyzing dense hydroclimatic datasets in the contiguous U.S. and Puerto Rico, we show that event-scale runoff variability is only loosely related to event-scale rainfall variability. Instead, aridity and fractional evapotranspiration (ET) losses are much better predictors of runoff variability. Importantly, simple hillslope-scale soil water balance models capture major aspects of the observed relation between runoff variability and fractional ET losses. Together, these results point to the role of vegetation water use as a potential key to relating mean hydrologic partitioning with runoff variability.
The second challenge is that long-term erosion rates are expected to balance rock uplift rates as landscapes approach topographic steady state, regardless of hydroclimatic setting. This is illustrated with new data along the Main Gulf Escarpment, Baja, Mexico. Under this conceptual framework, climate is not expected to set the erosion rate, but rather the erosional efficiency of the system, or the steady-state relief required for erosion to keep up with tectonically driven uplift rates. To assess differences in erosional efficiency across landscapes experiencing different climatic regimes, we contrast new CRN data from tectonically active landscapes in Baja, Mexico and southern California (arid) with northern Honduras (very humid) alongside other published global data from similar hydroclimatic settings. This analysis shows how climate does, in fact, set functional relationships between topographic metrics like channel steepness and long-term erosion rates. However, we also show that relatively small differences in rock erodibility and incision thresholds can easily overprint hydroclimatic controls on erosional efficiency motivating the need for more field based constraints on these important variables.