Geology of the Grand Canyon: Base Levels Of Erosion.

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff


In his popular narrative of Explorations of the Colorado River, Powell has employed the above term to give precision to an idea which is of much importance in physical geology. The idea in some form or other has, no doubt, occurred to many geologists, but, so far as known to me, it had not before received such definite treatment nor been so fully and justly emphasized. It may be explained as follows.

Whenever a smooth country lies at an altitude but little above the level of the sea, erosion proceeds at a rate so slow as to be merely nominal. The rivers cannot corrade their channels. Their declivities are very small, the velocities of their waters very feeble, and their transporting power is so much reduced that they can do not more than urge along the detritus brought into their troughs from highlands around their margins. Their transporting power is just equal to the load they have to carry, and there is no surplus left to wear their bottoms. All that erosion can now do is do to slowly carry off the soil formed on the slopes of mounds, banks, and hillocks, which faintly diversify the broad surrounding expanse. The erosion is at its base-level or very nearly so. An extreme case is the State of Florida. All region are tending to base-levels of erosion, and if the time be long enough each region will, in its turn, approach nearer and nearer, and at last sensibly reach it. The approach, however, consists in an infinite series of approximations like the approach of a hyperbola to tangency with its asymptote. Thus far, however, there is the implied assumption that the region undergoes no change of altitude with reference to sea-level; that it is neither elevated nor depressed by subterranean forces. Many regions do remain without such vertical movements through a long succession of geological periods. But the greater portion of the existing land of the globe, so far as known, has been subject to repeated throes of elevation or depression. Such a charge, if of notable amount, at length destroys the pre-existing relation of a region to its base-level of erosion. If it is depressed it becomes immediately an area of deposition. If it is elevated new energy is imparted to the agents and machinery of erosion. The declivities of the streams are increased, giving an excess of transporting power which sweeps the channels clear of débris; corrasion begins; new topographical features are literally carved out of the land in high relief; long rapid slopes or cliffs are generated and vigorously attacked by the destroying agents; and the degradation of the country proceeds with energy.

It is not necessary that a base-level of erosion should lie at extremely low altitudes. Thus a large interior basin drained by a trunk river, across the lower portions of which a barrier is slowly rising, is a case in point. For a time the river is tasked to cut down its barrier as rapidly as it rises. This occasion slackwater in the courses above the barrier and stops corrasion, producing ultimately a local base-level. Another case is the Great Basin of Nevada. It has no outlet, because its streams sink in the sand or evaporate from salinas. Its valley bottoms are rather below base-level than above it. The general result of causes tending to bring a region to an approximate base-level of erosion is the obliteration of its inequalities.

During the progress of the great denudation of the Grand Cañon District the indications are abundant that its interior spaces have occupied for a time relation of an approximate base-level of erosion. Throughout almost the entire stretch of Tertiary and Quaternary time the region has been rising, and in the aggregate the elevation has become immense, varying from 11,000 to 18,000 feet in different portions. But it seems that the movement has not been at a uniform rate. It appears to have proceeded through alternations of activity and repose. Whether we can point to more than one period of quiescence may be somewhat doubtful, but we can point decisively to one. It occurred probably in late Miocene or early Pliocene time, and while it prevailed the great Carboniferous platform was denuded of most its inequalities, and was planed down to a very flat expanse. Since that period the relation has been destroyed by a general upheaval of the entire region several thousands of feet. The indications of this will appear when we come to the study of the interior spaces of the Grand Cañon District and of the Grand Cañon itself. To this study we now proceed.

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