Date of this Version
UGA Publication 43 (2014)
Within a four square kilometer portion of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, seven distinct slot canyons cut the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. Four of the slots developed along separate reaches of a trunk stream (Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch), and three (including canyons locally known as “Peekaboo” and “Spooky”) are at the distal ends of south-flowing tributary drainages. All these slot canyons are examples of epigenetic gorges—bedrock channel reaches shifted laterally from previous reach locations. The previous channels became filled with alluvium, allowing active channels to shift laterally in places and to subsequently re-incise through bedrock elsewhere. New evidence, based on optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages, indicates that this thick alluvium started to fill broad, pre-existing, bedrock canyons before 55,000 years ago, and that filling continued until at least 48,000 years ago. Streams start to fill their channels when sediment supply increases relative to stream power. The following conditions favored alluviation in the study area: (1) a cooler, wetter climate increased the rate of mass wasting along the Straight Cliffs (the headwaters of Dry Fork) and the rate of weathering of the broad outcrops of Navajo and Entrada Sandstone; (2) windier conditions increased the amount of eolian sand transport, perhaps destabilizing dunes and moving their stored sediment into stream channels; and (3) southward migration of the jet stream diminished the frequency and severity of convective storms. We hypothesize that a subsequent increase in the frequency of intense runoff events after 48 ka, combined with the diversion of flow over steep but unchannelized bedrock surfaces, led to a brief and unusual episode of rapid canyon cutting. This work illustrates a specific mechanism by which climate change can induce river incision, and conversely how information on climate may be recorded in the morphology of erosional landscapes.