Articles | Volume 10, issue 5
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 10, 731–742, 2006
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-10-731-2006

Special issue: Thresholds and pattern dynamics: a new paradigm for predicting...

Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 10, 731–742, 2006
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-10-731-2006

  09 Oct 2006

09 Oct 2006

Evolutionary geomorphology: thresholds and nonlinearity in landform response to environmental change

J. D. Phillips J. D. Phillips
  • Tobacco Road Research Team, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0027, USA

Abstract. Geomorphic systems are typically nonlinear, owing largely to their threshold-dominated nature (but due to other factors as well). Nonlinear geomorphic systems may exhibit complex behaviors not possible in linear systems, including dynamical instability and deterministic chaos. The latter are common in geomorphology, indicating that small, short-lived changes may produce disproportionately large and long-lived results; that evidence of geomorphic change may not reflect proportionally large external forcings; and that geomorphic systems may have multiple potential response trajectories or modes of adjustment to change. Instability and chaos do not preclude predictability, but do modify the context of predictability. The presence of chaotic dynamics inhibits or excludes some forms of predicability and prediction techniques, but does not preclude, and enables, others. These dynamics also make spatial and historical contingency inevitable: geography and history matter. Geomorphic systems are thus governed by a combination of "global" laws, generalizations and relationships that are largely (if not wholly) independent of time and place, and "local" place and/or time-contingent factors. The more factors incorporated in the representation of any geomorphic system, the more singular the results or description are. Generalization is enhanced by reducing rather than increasing the number of factors considered. Prediction of geomorphic responses calls for a recursive approach whereby global laws and local contingencies are used to constrain each other. More specifically a methodology whereby local details are embedded within simple but more highly general phenomenological models is advocated. As landscapes and landforms change in response to climate and other forcings, it cannot be assumed that geomorphic systems progress along any particular pathway. Geomorphic systems are evolutionary in the sense of being path dependent, and historically and geographically contingent. Assessing and predicting geomorphic responses obliges us to engage these contingencies, which often arise from nonlinear complexities. We are obliged, then, to practice evolutionary geomorphology: an approach to the study of surface processes and landforms which recognizes multiple possible historical pathways rather than an inexorable progression toward some equilbribrium state or along a cyclic pattern.