Experimental study of bedrock erosion by granular flows

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Journal of Geophysical Research

Field studies suggest that bedrock incision by granular flows may be the primary process cutting valleys in steep, unglaciated landscapes. An expression has been proposed for debris flow incision into bedrock which posits that erosion rate depends on stresses due to granular interactions at the snout of debris flows. Here, we explore this idea by conducting laboratory experiments to test the hypothesis that bedrock erosion is related to grain collisional stresses which scale with shear rate and particle size. We placed granular material in a 56-cm-diameter rotating drum to explore the relationship between erosion of a synthetic bedrock sample and variables such as grain size, shear rate, water content, and bed strength. Grain collisional stresses are estimated as the inertial stress using the product of the squares of particle size and vertical shear rate. Our uniform granular material consisted of 1-mm sand and quartzite river gravel with means of 4, 6, or 10 mm. In 67 experimental runs, the eroded depth of the bed sample varied with inertial stresses in the granular flow to a power less than 1.0 and inversely with the bed strength. The flows tended to slip on smooth boundaries, resulting in higher erosion rates than no-slip cases. We found that lateral wall resistance generated shear across the channel, producing two cells whose widths depended on wall roughness. While the hypothesized inertial stress dependency is supported with these data, wear mechanics needs to account for grain dynamics specifically at the snout and possibly to include lateral shear effects.