The experts incorporated cutting-edge tech to accurately detect exactly how mountains are affected raindrops has helped to solve a long-standing scientific enigma. The University of Bristol research has managed to accurately assess precipitation’s impact, revealing exactly how mountains have evolved over aeons.
The Himalaya-focussed research has also revealed more about the ramification of man-made climate change in addition to how human life around these vertiginous landscapes.
Our findings show how critical it is to account for rainfall when assessing patterns of tectonic activity using topography
Professor Kelin Whipple
This study overcame a challenge others had previous encountered – creating precise-enough models to test the most important factors involved.
Dr Byron Adams, the study’s lead author, together with Arizona State University and Louisiana State University, decided to use cosmic clocks within sand grains to accurately measure just how quickly rivers can erode their banks.
Dr Adams said: ”When a cosmic particle from outer space reaches Earth, it is likely to hit sand grains on hill slopes as they are transported toward rivers.
“When this happens, some atoms within each grain of sand can transform into a rare element.
“By counting how many atoms of this element are present in a bag of sand, we can calculate how long the sand has been there, and therefore how quickly the landscape has been eroding.
“It may seem intuitive that more rain can shape mountains by making rivers cut down into rocks faster.
“But scientists have also believed rain can erode a landscape quickly enough to essentially ‘suck’ the rocks out of the Earth, effectively pulling mountains up very quickly.
“Both these theories have been debated for decades because the measurements required to prove them are so painstakingly complicated.
“That’s what makes this discovery such an exciting breakthrough, as it strongly supports the notion that atmospheric and solid earth processes are intimately connected.”
The research was conducted on Bhutan and Nepal, because geologists recognised this area as one of the most sampled landscapes for erosion rate studies.
The team managed to overcome one major issue faced when combining regression techniques with numerical models of how rivers erode.
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Dr Adams said: “We tested a wide variety of numerical models to reproduce the observed erosion rate pattern across Bhutan and Nepal.
“Ultimately only one model was able to accurately predict the measured erosion rates.
“This model allows us for the first time to quantify how rainfall affects erosion rates in rugged terrain.”
Professor Kelin Whipple, of ASU, said in a statement: “Our findings show how critical it is to account for rainfall when assessing patterns of tectonic activity using topography, and also provide an essential step forward in addressing how much the slip rate on tectonic faults may be controlled by climate-driven erosion at the surface.”
It is hoped the study will benefit land use management and infrastructure maintenance in the Himalaya and beyond.
There is the constant danger high erosion rates will drastically increase sedimentation behind dams, jeopardising critical hydropower projects in the world’s highest mountain range.
The author now believes increased rainfall can undermine hill slopes.
This increases the risk of debris flows or landslides, some of which may be large enough to dam the river – creating a new hazard – lake outburst floods.
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