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Magnitude and frequency of forces in geomorphic processes

Magnitude and frequency of forces in geomorphic processes

Journal of Geology 68(1): 54-74

The relative importance in geomorphic processes of extreme or catastrophic events and more frequent events of smaller magnitude can be measured in terms of 1) the relative amounts of "work" done on the landscape and 2) in terms of the formation of specific features of the landscape. For many processes, above the level of competence, the rate of movement of material can be expressed as a power function of some stress, as for example, shear stress. Because the frequency distributions of the magnitudes of many natural events, such as floods, rainfall, and wind speeds, approximate log-normal distributions, the product of frequency and rate, a measure of the work performed by events having different frequencies and magnitudes will attain a maximum. The frequency at which this maximum occurs provides a measure of the level at which the largest portion of the total work is accomplished. Analysis of records of sediment transported by rivers indicates that the largest portion of the total load is carried by flows which occur on the average once or twice each year. As the variability of the flow increases and hence as the size of the drainage basin decreases, a larger percentage of the total load is carried by less frequent flows. In many basins 90% of the sediment is removed by storm discharges which recur at least once every 5 years. Transport of sand and dust by wind in general follows the same laws. The extreme velocities associated with infrequent events are compensated for by their rarity, and it is found that the greatest bulk of sediment is transported by more moderate events. Many rivers are competent to erode both bed and banks during moderate flows. Observations of natural channels suggest that the channel shape as well as the dimensions of meandering rivers appear to be associated with flows at or near the bankfull stage. The fact that the bankfull stage recurs on the average once every year or 2 years indicates that these features of many alluvial rivers are controlled by these more frequent flows rather than by the rarer events of catastrophic magnitude. Because the equilibrium form of wind-blown dunes and of wave-formed beaches is quite unstable, the frequency of the events responsible for their form is less clearly definable. However, dune form and orientation are determined by both wind velocity and frequency. Similarly, a hypothetical example suggests that beach slope oscillates about a mean value related in part to wave characteristics generated by winds of moderate speed. Where stresses generated by frequent events are incompetent to transport available materials, less frequent ones of greater magnitude are obviously required. Closer observation of many geomorphic processes is required before the relative importance of different processes and of events of differing magnitude and frequency in the formation of given features of the landscape can be adequately evaluated.

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Accession: 019361367

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DOI: 10.2307/30058255

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