Identifying Geomorphic Process Domains in the Synthetic Landscapes of West Virginia, USA

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Abstract

Human activities such as mining, agriculture, and urbanization have resulted in severe, large-scale alteration to landform organization and associated geomorphic processes. The mountaintop mining (MTM) region of West Virginia, USA has experienced dramatic topographic alteration, by removing steep slopes and introducing plateau-like areas at ridgelines and benches on valley fills. The resulting engineered landforms create synthetic landscapes, disconnected from previous geomorphic processes. Invoking the process domain concept, we compare differences in slope-area relations, cumulative area distributions (CADs), elevation, slope, upslope accumulated area, and a slope*area product before and after mining to adjacent unmined sub-catchments in five study basins. Differences in the slope-area relation include a 42% slope reduction in low drainage areas, corresponding to hillslopes, unchanneled valleys, and debris flow dominated channels, which may fall below thresholds required for debris flow processes. The curved slope-area relation that represents valley incision by debris flows is replaced by slope-area relations that resemble basins where gullying and the stream power law dominate. Extremely high chemical weathering of unconsolidated valley fills materials may facilitate process domain shifts from debris flows to gullying and fluvial erosion. The characteristic power law scaling break in CADs that represents the headward limit of the channelized network is subdued in post-mined sites and may reflect headward channelized network extension in mined basins. Slope-area relations and CADs present a unique topographic signature of MTM activity, potentially providing an analytical approach to assess impacts on underlying geomorphic processes for other synthetic landscapes such as cities or large-scale agricultural production.

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Jaeger, K. L., & Ross, M. R. V. (2021). Identifying Geomorphic Process Domains in the Synthetic Landscapes of West Virginia, USA. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 126(3). https://doi.org/10.1029/2020JF005851

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