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Aridity is expressed in river topography globally

Research output: Contribution to journalLetter

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)573-577
Number of pages18
DateAccepted/In press - 3 Jul 2019
DatePublished (current) - 16 Sep 2019


It has long been suggested that climate shapes land surface topography, through interactions between rainfall, runoff, and erosion in drainage basins. The longitudinal profile of a river (elevation versus distance downstream) is a key morphological attribute that reflects the history of drainage basin evolution, so its form should be diagnostic of the regional expression of climate and its interaction with the land surface. However, both detecting climatic signatures in longitudinal profiles and deciphering the climatic mechanisms of their development have been challenging due to the lack of relevant data across the globe, and due to the variable effects of tectonics, lithology, land-surface properties, and humans. Here we present a global dataset of river longitudinal profiles (n =333,502), and use it to explore differences in overall profile shape (concavity) across climate zones. We show that river profiles are systematically straighter with increasing aridity. Through simple numerical modeling, we demonstrate that these global patterns in longitudinal profile shape can be explained by hydrological controls that reflect rainfall-runoff regimes in different climate zones. The most important of these is the downstream rate-of-change in streamflow independent of drainage basin area. Our results illustrate that river topography inherits a signature of aridity, suggesting that climate is a first-order control on drainage basin evolution.



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