Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

From Peaks to Prairie: Two Natural Experiments in Decadal Landscape Evolution

Numerical models of landscape evolution play a vital role in geomorphology, but there remains a pressing need to test these models against field data. We are developing two case studies for model-data comparison testing. The two case studies are sites of rapid, decadal landscape change.

The decadal scale is particularly important because:

it is a critical time scale for societal adaptation to rapid environmental change,
it is short enough to take advantage of historical records, and
models of longer-term landscape dynamics should be consistent with shorter-term behavior.

The study pairs two very different environments: a low-relief, semi-arid, soft-rock setting dominated by rapid gully erosion and scarp retreat, and a steep, montane, forested, crystalline-rock setting responding to a 1996 wildfire. The first site, located on the high plains of eastern Colorado, provides a unique opportunity to reconstruct erosion rates and channel growth patterns over a 70-year period. The second site, in the Colorado Front Range, contains an extraordinarily rich 14-year database of post-fire geomorphic response, thanks to intensive monitoring efforts by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The project relies on a variety of methods, including OSL dating, LiDAR DEM analysis (both airborne and terrestrial), and numerical modeling. Modern hydrology and geomorphology are documented with a network of rain gauges and flow sensors, combined with biennial tripod-laser scans to measure rates of channel-head retreat (estimated at ~0.5m/yr). The two data sets are used to test a physically based numerical model of landscape evolution using a Monte Carlo calibration method.




Rengers, F.K., McGuire, L.A., Ebel, B.A., & Tucker, G.E. (2018) The evolution of a colluvial hollow to a fluvial channel with periodic steps following two transformational disturbances: A wildfire and a historic flood. Geomorphology, v. 309, p. 121-130, doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2018.01.003.

Ebel, B.A., Rengers, F.K., Tucker, G. E. (2016) Observed and simulated hydrologic response for a first-order catchment during extreme rainfall three years after wildfire disturbance. Water Resources Research, v. 52, doi: 10.1002/2016WR019110.

Rengers, F.K., Lunacek, M., and Tucker, G.E. (2016) Application of an Evolutionary Algorithm for Parameter Optimization in a Gully Erosion Model. Environmental Modelling and Software, v. 80, p. 297-305.

Rengers, F.K., Tucker, G.E., and Mahan, S. (2016) Episodic bedrock erosion by gully-head migration, Colorado High Plains, USA. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, doi:10.1002/esp.3929.

Rengers, F.K., Tucker, G.E., Moody, J.A., and Ebel, B. (2016) Illuminating wildfire erosion and deposition patterns with repeat terrestrial lidar. Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 121, no. 3, p. 588-608.

Ebel, B., Rengers, F.K., and Tucker, G.E. (2015) Aspect-Dependent Soil Saturation and Insight Into Debris-Flow Initiation During Extreme Rainfall in the Colorado Front Range. Geology, v. 43, no. 8, p. 659-662.

Rengers, F.K., Tucker, G.E. (2015) The evolution of gully headcut morphology: a case study using terrestrial laser scanning and hydrological monitoring. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, v. 40, no. 10, doi: 10.1002/esp.3721.

Rengers, F.K., and Tucker, G.E. (2014) Analysis and modeling of gully headcut dynamics, North American High Plains. Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 119, p. 983-1003, doi:10.1002/2013JF002962.


Research Group


Greg Tucker, University of Colorado at Boulder
Francis Rengers, Ph.D. candidate in Geological Sciences, CU Boulder
John Moody, U.S. Geological Survey
David Phillips, UNAVCO

Funding Information

Supported by National Science Foundation grant EAR-0952247, 2010-2013