Drainage basin evolution in the Rainfall Erosion Facility: Dependence on initial conditions

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Four experiments in alluvial drainage basin evolution were carried out in the Rainfall Erosion Facility (REF) at Colorado State University to investigate the dependence of basin evolution on initial topography. Basins were initially undissected. Each experiment began with a unique initial condition representing various end-members of relief and hypsometry. Drainage network development, hillslope processes, basin denudation, and basin response to base-level lowering all depended strongly on the initial topography. No classic model of drainage network evolution was found to be generally applicable. Initially, planar slopes first developed subparallel channels that extended headward dendritically during an early phase of extension. Channel incision occurred first in the interior of the basin where saturation overland flow was greatest, not at the basin outlet as assumed in most classic models of network development. Channels widened over time, initiating lateral migration and drainage capture in the downslope portion of the watershed before transferring lateral migration upslope. Planar basins of larger initial gradient grew headward more quickly and become more deeply entrenched, inhibiting late-stage lateral migration. An experiment with initial relief concentrated at a plateau edge evolved in several unique ways. A high ratio of subsurface-to-surface flow gave rise to mass movements at the plateau edge and outlet channels. Deep channels were quickly cut initially but did not extend far upslope because slope instability undermined channel head migration, leaving the plateau undissected and hence very slow to erode. These results suggest that the distribution of relief within a basin exerts an important control on drainage network pattern and basin denudation. In addition, erosional basins may evolve in several distinct modes characterized by particular combinations of hypsometry, hillslope processes, and mean denudation rate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-196
Number of pages14
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 1 2003


  • Drainage network
  • Flume experiment
  • Landform evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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