Tectonic Geomorphology                                                                                         Spring 2012    

Geol 4550      


Course description:


This course will address how plate tectonics interacts with climate to sculpt the landscapes of mountain belts. We will develop conceptual and quantitative models of landscape evolution in order to gain insight into the basic controls on elevation and relief of orogens. In addition, we will analyze topographic data sets from orogens worldwide in GIS to identify the statistical properties of landscapes and delineate the signatures of feedback between surface processes and tectonics. 


Instructor:      Karen Gran (kgran@d.umn.edu)                    TA:      Molly Wick (wick0256@d.umn.edu)

Office: 217 HH                                               Office: 206 HH

Phone:  726-7406                                            Phone: 726-7935

Office Hours: M 10-11, W 3-4                       Office Hours:  TBD


Meeting time (location):        Lecture:           MW     9:00 – 9:50 am                        (HH 216)

                                                Lab:                 F          9:00 – 10:50 am                      (HH 108)


Course performance evaluation: Laboratory exercises and problem sets (90%); Discussions (10%)


Final exam: None, final project instead


Topics covered:


Critical taper theory: Self-similar growth of orogens

Role of elevation in controlling erosion rates: Lapse rates and orographic precipitation

Feedback between climate and uplift

Steady state topography: Does it exist?

Controls on drainage density: Uplift, precipitation, and orographic effects

Bedrock incision and stream profiles: Knickpoint propagation in response to changing boundary conditions

Hillslope processes and hillslope-channel coupling: Stochastic sediment delivery

Topographic signatures of active mountain ranges: Slope-area analysis and tectonic hotspots

Inversion of erosional landscapes for the history of tectonics and climate

Methods for determining erosion, exhumation, and uplift rates



It is in your best interest to attend class. 

If you are absent from lecture, it is your responsibility to obtain handouts and assignments. Unexcused absence will not extend problem-set or laboratory exercise deadlines.


Class Website:

We have a class website on Moodle 2.  This website will be the go-to place for copies of discussion papers, lecture notes, lab handouts, etc.  We will also use the website heavily to exchange datasets for laboratory exercises. 


You can reach the website directly at https://moodle2.umn.edu/course/view.php?id=2897


Word of caution: Please don’t fall behind.  Labs build on each other and have to be turned in on time.  Your classmates often depend upon your data, so don’t let them down.

Plan: (subject to change…)




Discussion Paper



Jan 18-20

Mountain evolution models; Steady-state

Molnar and England 1990 (Friday)



Jan 23-27

Orogenic convergence; isostasy


Taiwan #1


Jan 30-Feb 3

Critical taper theory


Taiwan #2


Feb 6 -10

Climate interactions with topography; orographic precipitation

Montgomery et al. 2001

Modeling #1


Feb 13-17

How do mountains erode: Fluvial incision


Modeling #2


Feb 20-24

How do mountains erode: Glaciers

Egholm et al. 2009; Anders et al. 2010



Feb 27-Mar 2

How do mountains erode: Hillslope Processes; Slope-area relationships


Slope-Area #1


Mar 5-9

No Class on Monday;

Slope-Area relationships

Wobus et al. 2006

Slope-Area #2


Spring Break





Mar 19-23

Topographic signatures of active tectonics


Fault scarps and diffusion


Mar 26-30

Topographic signatures of active tectonics


Carrizo Plain



Geomorphic markers – fluvial terraces

Wegmann and Pazzaglia 2002



Apr 9-13

Methods for dating and chronology


Cosmogenic Nuclides


Apr 16-20

Final project, TBD

Hasbargen and Paola 2000

Final Project


Apr 23-27

Final project, TBD


Final Project


Apr 30-May4

Final project, TBD




Reading List: (will be updated throughout semester)

Anders, AM, Mitchell, SG, Tomkin, JH, 2010, Cirques, peaks, and precipitation patterns in the Swiss Alps: Connections among climate, glacial erosion, and topography.  Geology, v. 38, pp. 239-242, doi: 10.1130/G30691.1


Egholm, DL, Nielsen, SB, Pedersen, VK, Lesemann, J-E, 2009, Glacial effects limiting mountain height.  Nature, v. 460, p. 884-888, doi:10.1038/nature08263.


Hasbargen, LE, and Paola, C, 2000, Landscape instability in an experimental drainage basin.  Geology, v. 28, n. 12, pp. 1067-1070.


Molnar, P., and England, P., 1990, Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg?  Nature, v. 346, pp. 29-34.


Montgomery, DR, Balco, G, Willett, SD, 2001, Climate, tectonics, and the morphology of the Andes. Geology, V. 29, n. 7, pp. 579-582.


Wegmann, KW, and Pazzaglia, FJ, 2002, Holocene strath terraces, climate change, and active tectonics: The Clearwater River basin, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.  Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 111, pp. 731-744, doi: 10.1130/0016-7606(2002)114.


Whipple, KX, 1999, Geomorphic limits to climate-induced increases in topographic relief. Nature, v. 401, pp. 39-43.


Whipple, KX, 2004, Bedrock rivers and the geomorphology of active orogens.  Annual Reviews in Earth and Planetary Sciences, v. 32, pp. 151-185, doi: 10.1146/annurev.earth.32.101802.120356.


Wobus, C, Whipple, KX, Kirby, E, Snyder, N, Johnson, J, Spyropolou, K, Crosby, B, Sheehan, D, 2006, Tectonics from topography: Procedures, promise, and pitfalls.  In Willett, SD, Hovius, N, Brandon, MT, and Fisher, DM, eds., Tectonics, Climate, and Landscape Evolution: Geological Society of America, Special Paper 398, Penrose Conference Series, p. 55-74, doi: 10.1130/2006.2398(04).



Additional UMD policies:


Excused Absences:

Students are expected to attend all scheduled class meetings.  It is the responsibility of students to plan their schedules to avoid excessive conflict with course requirements. However, there are legitimate and verifiable circumstances that lead to excused student absence from the classroom.  These are subpoenas, jury duty, military duty, religious observances, illness, bereavement for immediate family, and NCAA varsity intercollegiate athletics.  For complete information, please see: http://www.d.umn.edu/vcaa/ExcusedAbsence.html 


Teaching & Learning: Instructor and Student Responsibilities:

UMD is committed to providing a positive, safe, and inclusive place for all who study and work here.  A central mission of the university is to educate students through the offering of courses and programs leading to the conferral of degrees. Teaching and learning at the university take place in a variety of educational settings including on-campus lecture halls and classrooms, laboratories, field sites, and online.  Instructors and students have mutual responsibility to insure that the environment in all of these settings supports teaching and learning, is respectful of the rights and freedoms of all members, and promotes a civil and open exchange of ideas. Making hostile, threatening, discriminatory or disparaging remarks toward or about the instructor, other members of the class or groups of people will not be tolerated. To reference the full policy please see:  http://www.d.umn.edu/vcaa/TeachingLearning.html. 


Student Conduct Code:

Appropriate classroom conduct promotes an environment of academic achievement and integrity.  Disruptive classroom behavior that substantially or repeatedly interrupts either the instructor's ability to teach, or student learning, is prohibited. Disruptive behavior includes inappropriate use of technology in the classroom. Examples include ringing cell phones, text-messaging, watching videos, playing computer games, doing email, or surfing the Internet on your computer instead of note-taking or other instructor-sanctioned activities. Students are expected adhere to Board of Regents Policy: Student Conduct Code: http://www1.umn.edu/regents/policies/academic/Student_Conduct_Code.pdf  


Academic Integrity:

Academic dishonesty tarnishes UMD’s reputation and discredits the accomplishments of students.  Academic dishonesty is regarded as a serious offense by all members of the academic community.  UMD’s Student Academic Integrity Policy can be found at: http://www.d.umn.edu/conduct/integrity/ 


Appropriate Student Use of Class Notes and Course Materials:

Taking notes is a means of recording information but more importantly of personally absorbing and integrating the educational experience. However, broadly disseminating class notes beyond the classroom community or accepting compensation for taking and distributing classroom notes undermines instructor interests in their intellectual work product while not substantially furthering instructor and student interests in effective learning. For additional information, please see: http://www.d.umn.edu/vcaa/ClassNotesAppropriateUseof.html


Students with disabilities: 

It is the policy and practice of the University of Minnesota Duluth to create inclusive learning environments for all students, including students with disabilities.  If there are aspects of this course that result in barriers to your inclusion or your ability to meet course requirements – such as time limited exams, inaccessible web content, or the use of non-captioned videos – please notify the instructor as soon as possible.  You are also encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Resources to discuss and arrange reasonable accommodations.   Please call 218-726-6130 or visit the DR website at www.d.umn.edu/access for more information. 


Internet ID Access:

In this class, our use of technology will sometimes make students' names and U of M Internet IDs visible within the course website, but only to other students in the same class. Since we are using a secure, password-protected course website, this will not increase the risk of identity theft or spamming for anyone in the class. If you have concerns about the visibility of your Internet ID, please contact me for further information.