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Groundwater affects the geomorphic and hydrologic properties of coevolved landscapes
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  • David Litwin,
  • Gregory E. Tucker,
  • Katherine R. Barnhart,
  • Ciaran J Harman
David Litwin
Johns Hopkins University
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Gregory E. Tucker
University of Colorado Boulder
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Katherine R. Barnhart
U.S. Geological Survey
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Ciaran J Harman
Johns Hopkins University

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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The hydrologic dynamics and geomorphic evolution of watersheds are intimately coupled – runoff generation and water storage are controlled by topography and properties of the surface and subsurface, while also affecting the evolution of those properties over geologic time. However, the large disparity between their timescales has made it difficult to examine interdependent controls on emergent hydro-geomorphic properties, such as hillslope length, drainage density, extent of surface saturation. In this study, we develop a new model coupling hydrology and landscape evolution to explore how runoff generation affects long-term catchment evolution, and analyze numerical results using a nondimensional scaling framework. We focus on hydrologic processes dominating in humid climates where storm runoff primarily arises from shallow subsurface flow and from precipitation on saturated areas. The model solves hydraulic groundwater equations to predict the water table location given prescribed, constant groundwater recharge. Water in excess of the subsurface capacity for transport becomes overland flow, which generates shear stress on the surface and may detach and transport sediment. This affects the landscape form that in turn affects runoff generation. We show that (1) three dimensionless parameters describe the possible steady state landscapes that coevolve under steady recharge; (2) hillslope length increases with increasing transmissivity relative to the recharge rate; (3) three topographic metrics—steepness index, Laplacian curvature, and topographic index—provide a basis to recover key model parameters from topography (including subsurface transmissivity). These results open possibilities for topographic analysis of humid upland landscapes that could inform quantitative understanding of hydrological processes at the landscape scale.
Jan 2022Published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface volume 127 issue 1. 10.1029/2021JF006239