Quantifying the temporal and spatial response of channel steepness to changes in rift basin architecture
Quantifying the temporal and spatial evolution of active continental rifts contributes to our understanding of fault system evolution and seismic hazards. Rift systems also preserve robust paleoenvironmental records and are often characterized by strong climatic gradients that can be used to examine feedbacks between climate and tectonics. In this thesis, I quantify the spatial and temporal history of rift flank uplift by analyzing bedrock river channel profiles along footwall escarpments in the Malawi segment of the East Africa Rift. This work addresses questions that are widely applicable to continental rift settings: (1) Is rift-flank uplift sufficiently described by theoretical elliptical along-fault displacement patterns? (2) Do orographic climate patterns induced by rift topography affect rift-flank uplift or morphology? (3) How do uplift patterns along rift flanks vary over geologic timescales? In Malawi, 100-km-long border faults of alternating polarity bound half-graben sedimentary basins containing up to 4km of basin fill and water depths up to 700m. Orographically driven precipitation produces climatic gradients along footwall escarpments resulting in mean annual rainfall that varies spatially from 800 to 2500 mm. Temporal oscillations in climate have also resulted in lake lowstands 500 m below the modern shoreline. I examine bedrock river profiles crossing the Livingstone and Usisya Border Faults in northern Malawi using the channel steepness index (Ksn) to assess importance of these conditions on rift flank evolution. River profiles reveal a consistent transient pattern that likely preserves a temporal record of slip and erosion along the entire border fault system. These profiles and other topographic observations, along with known modern and paleoenvironmental conditions, can be used to interpret a complete history of rift flank development from the onset of rifting to present. I interpret the morphology of the upland landscape to preserve the onset of extensional faulting across a relict erosion surface. The linkages of individual faults and acceleration of slip during the development of a continuous border fault is suggested by an analysis of knickpoint elevations and Ksn. Finally, these results suggest that the modern observed climate gradient only began to significantly affect denudation patterns once a high relief rift flank was established.