jdp's blog

PATH EXTINCTION & REINFORCEMENT

The development and change over time (evolution) of geomorphic, soil, hydrological, and ecosystems (Earth surface systems; ESS) is often, perhaps mostly, characterized by multiple potential developmental trajectories. That is, rather than an inevitable monotonic progression toward a single stable state or climax or mature form, often there exist multiple stable states or potentially unstable outcomes, and multiple possible developmental pathways. Until late in the 20th century, basic tenets of geosciences, ecology, and pedology emphasized single-path, single-outcome conceptual models such as classical vegetation succession; development of mature, climax, or zonal soils; or attainment of steady-state or some other form of stable equilibrium. As evidence accumulated of ESS evolution with, e.g., nonequilibrium dynamics, alternative stable states, divergent evolution, and path dependency, the "headline" was the existence of > 2 potential pathways, contesting and contrasting with the single-path frameworks. Now it is appropriate to address the question of why the number of actually observed pathways is relatively small.The purpose of this post is to explore why some developmental sequences are rare vs. common; why some are non-recurring (path extinction), and some are reinforced.

THE GEOMORPHOLOGICAL NICHE OF TREES

In a 2009 article I introduced the concept of a geomorphological niche, defined as the resources available to drive or support a particular geomorphic process (the concept has not caught on). The niche is defined in terms of a landscape evolution space (LES), given by

where H is height above a base level, rho is the density of the geological parent material, g is the gravity constant, and A is surface area. The k’s are factors representing the inputs of solar energy and precipitation, and Pgrepresents the geomorphically significant proportion of biological productivity (see this for the  background and justification).

BREAKAGE VS. UPROOTING & HILLSLOPE GEOMORPHOLOGY

Just published in Geomorphology:

Samonil, P., Danek, P., Adam, D., Phillips, J.D. 2017. Breakage or uprooting: how tree death affects hillslope processes in old-growth temperate forestsGeomorphology 299: 276-284. 

The abstract is below:

Posted 14 November 2017

 

HOW COMPLEX CAN IT BE?

Back in 2006, novelist and country music singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman ran (unsuccessfully) for governor of Texas. His campaign slogan, a rather pointed reference to the fact that recent occupants of the office George W. Bush and Rick Perry were not the sharpest tools in the shed, was "how hard could it be?" I can't answer that, but I can answer, after a fashion, the question of how complex or simple an Earth surface system can be.

The Dubious Power of Power Laws

 

Everyone knows the classic normal distribution—the “bell curve,” where most observations cluster around the mean, and the frequency falls off toward either end, with well known statistical properties. Lots of things in nature are more-or-less normally distributed, but lots of things are not. In some cases distributions are “heavy-tailed,” such that for example there are many of the small ones, and increasingly fewer as size increases. Famous examples are the distribution of earthquake magnitudes, rank-size distributions of cities, and the distribution of wealth in societies.

Models of avalanche size distributions in (mathematically-simulated) sand piles were seminal in developing ideas about self-organized criticality and power laws, both in geomorphology and in general. Unfortunately even real sandpiles, much less more complex systems, are not necessarily well described by the models.

Convergence, Divergence & Reverse Engineering Power Laws

Landform and landscape evolution may be convergent, whereby initial differences and irregularities are (on average) reduced and smoothed, or divergent, with increasing variation and irregularity. Convergent and divergent evolution are directly related to dynamical (in)stability. Unstable interactions among geomorphic system components tend to dominate in earlier stages of development, while stable limits often become dominant in later stages. This results in mode switching, from unstable, divergent to stable, convergent development. Divergent-to-convergent mode switches emerge from a common structure in many geomorphic systems: mutually reinforcing or competitive interrelationships among system components, and negative self-effects limiting individual components. When the interactions between components are dominant, divergent evolution occurs. As threshold limits to divergent development are approached, self-limiting effects become more important, triggering a switch to convergence. The mode shift is an emergent phenomenon, arising from basic principles of threshold modulation and gradient selection.

Circular Reasoning

Scientists, including geographers and geoscientists, are easily seduced by repeated forms and patterns in nature. This is not surprising, as our mission is to detect and explain patterns in nature, ideally arising from some unifying underlying law or principle. Further, in the case of geography and Earth sciences, spatial patterns and form-process relationships are paramount.

Unfortunately, the recurrence of similar shapes, forms, or patterns may not tell us much. Over the years we have made much of, e.g. logarithmic spirals, Fibonacci sequences, fractal geometry, and power-law distributions—all of which recur in numerous phenomena—only to learn that they don’t necessarily tell us anything, other than that several different phenomena or causes can lead to the same form or pattern. The phenomenon whereby different processes, causes, or histories can lead to similar outcomes is called equifinality.

Center pivot irrigation in Kansas, USA (USGS photo).

Disturbing Foundations

Some comments from a reviewer on a recent manuscript of mine dealing with responses to disturbance in geomorphology got me to thinking about the concept of disturbance in the environmental sciences. Though the paper is a geomorphology paper (hopefully to be) in a geomorphology journal, the referee insisted that I should be citing some of the “foundational” ecological papers on disturbance. These, according to the referee, turned out to be papers from the 1980s and 1990s that are widely cited in the aquatic ecology and stream restoration literature, but are hardly foundational in general.

Consideration of the role of disturbance goes back to the earliest days of ecology, and is a major theme in the classic papers of, e.g., Warming, Cowles, and Clements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A general reconsideration (“reimagining” is the term many would use, but I’ve grown to hate that overused word) of the role of disturbance in ecological systems was well underway by the 1970s, and the last five years or so have seem some very interesting syntheses of these emerging ideas (two I especially like are Mori, 2011 and Pulsford et al., 2014).

Bank Full Of It

Fluvial geomorphologists, along with hydrologists and river engineers, have long been concerned with the flows or discharges that are primarily responsible for forming and shaping river channels. In the mid-20th century it was suggested that this flow is associated with bankfull stage—the stage right at the threshold of overflowing the channel—and that this occurs, on average, about every year or two in humid-climate perennial streams. If you have to choose just one flow to fixate on—and sometimes you do, for various management, design, and assessment purposes—and have no other a priori information about the river, bankfull is indeed the best choice. But, of course, nature is not that simple.

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