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ToolsGeomorphology

Author: Diane Rowland, Center for Environmental Sciences and Education, Northern Arizona University

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southwestern Utah. The unusual ecosystem in this valley contains both old-growth ponderosa pine forest and Sahara-like dune sand. Photo 1999 by Ray Wheeler.

Geomorphology is the study of the forms of the Earth's surface and of the processes that mold them. More recent geologic features - sand dunes, rivers, soils, lake basins, and alluvial fans, to name a few - are in most cases still undergoing formational processes. The response of these features to recent changes in climate and land use makes geomorphology an important tool for understanding our changing global climate and the effects of our increasingly intensive use of the landscape.

There are three main aspects to geomorphic study.

  1. Morphologic analyses help to classify landforms; an example would be the identification of sand dune type as barchan, longitudinal, parabolic, or star.  Another example would be the classification of stream types as braided, straight, or meandering.
  2. Process geomorphology involves an understanding of the driving and resisting forces behind the processes observed. In the case of sand dune, star dunes would indicate a limited sand source and multi-directional winds. In the case of streams, large meander bends indicate high sediment load and a gentle gradient. Driving forces could include changes in climate, changes in tectonic activity, and changes in land use, to name a few. Resisting forces include the geologic framework.
  3. Chronological geomorphology seeks to resolve the age and rate of formation of the features. Some landforms may be characterized by their lack of change; during these periods of quiesence, soils may develop which record a myriad of both biotic and abiotic information.

The Colorado Plateau abounds in unusual geomorphic features including the tight meander bends of the San Juan River Goosenecks, the spectacular sand dunes on the Navajo Reservation, and the beautiful erosional topography of the Grand Canyon.


Resources:

Balling, R. C., Jr. and Wells, S. G. 1990. Historic rainfall patterns and arroyo activity within the Zuni River drainage basin, New Mexico. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80: 603-617.

Boison, P. J. 1983. Late Pleistocene and Holocene alluvial stratigraphy of three tributaries in the Escalante River basin, Utah. University of California Press, Santa Cruz, CA.

Bull, W. B. 1991. Geomorphic responses to climatic change. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Hall, S. A. 1990. Holocene landscapes of the San Juan Basin, New Mexico: Geomorphic, climatic, and cultural dynamics. Pp. 323-334 In: Lasca, N. P. and Donahue, J., editors. Archaeological geology of North America. Centennial Special Volume 4. Geological Society of America, Boulder, CO.

Hintze, L. F. 1988. Geologic history of Utah.Geological Studies, Special Publication Number 7. Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Lee, C. T. and Marsh, S. E. 1995. The use of archival Landsat MSS and ancillary data in a GIS environment to map historical change in an urban riparian habitat. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing 61: 999-1008.

Lipe, W. D., Breed, W. J., West, J. and Batchelder, G. 1975. Lake Pagarhrit, southeastern Utah: A preliminary research report. Pp. 103-110 In: Fassett, J. E. and Wengerd, S. A., editors. Canyonlands country. Four Corners Geological Society Guidebook, 8th Field Conference, Durango, CO.

Love, D. W. 1983. Quaternary facies in Chaco Canyon and their implications for geomorphic-sedimentologic models. Pp. 195-206 In: Wells, S. G., Love, D. W. and Gardner, T. W., editors. Chaco Canyon country: A field guide to the geomorphology, quaternary geology, paleoecology, and environmental geology of northwestern New Mexico. American Geomorphological Field Group.

Love, D. W. 1983. Summary of the Late Cenozoic geomorphic and depositional history of Chaco Canyon. Pp. 187-194 In: Wells, S. G., Love, D. W. and Gardner, T. W., editors. Chaco Canyon country: A field guide to the geomorphology, quaternary geology, paleoecology, and environmental geology of northwestern New Mexico. American Geomorphological Field Group.

Moore, I. D., Gryson, R. B. and Ladson, A. R. 1990. Digital terrain modeling: A review of hydrological, geomorphological, and biological applications. Hydrological Processes 5: 3-30.

Potter, L. D. and Pattison, N. B. 1977. Shoreline surface materials and geological strata, Lake Powell.Lake Powell Research Project Bulletin No. 44. University of California, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Los Angeles.

Rinne, J. N. 1996. Desired future condition: Fish habitat in southwestern riparian-stream habitats. Pp. 336-345 In: Shaw, D. W. and Finch, E. M., editors. Desired future conditions for southwestern riparian ecosystems: Bringing interests and concerns together. General Technical Report RM-272. U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Ross, J. R. 1978. A three-dimensional analysis of the carbon alluvial fill sequence, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. M.S. Thesis. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Stevens, L. E., Schmidt, J. C., Ayers, T. J. and Brown, B. T. 1995. Flow regulation, geomorphology, and Colorado River marsh development in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Ecological Applications 5: 1025-1039.