Topographic disequilibrium, landscape dynamics and active tectonics: an example from the Bhutan Himalaya
The quantification of active tectonics from geomorphological and morphometric approaches commonly implies that erosion and tectonics have reached a certain balance. Such equilibrium conditions are however rare in nature, as questioned and documented by recent theoretical studies indicating that drainage basins may be perpetually re-arranging even though tectonic and climatic conditions remain constant. Here, we document these drainage dynamics in the Bhutan Himalaya, where evidence for out-of-equilibrium morphologies have for long been noticed, from major (> 1 km high) river knickpoints and from high-altitude low-relief regions in the mountain hinterland. To further characterize these morphologies and their dynamics, we perform field observations and a detailed quantitative morphometric analysis using χ plots and Gilbert metrics of drainages over various spatial scales, from major Himalayan rivers to their tributaries draining the low-relief regions. We first find that the river network is highly dynamic and unstable, with much evidence of divide migration and river captures. The landscape response to these dynamics is relatively rapid. Our results do not support the idea of a general wave of incision propagating upstream, as expected from most previous interpretations. Also, the specific spatial organization in which all major knickpoints and low-relief regions are located along a longitudinal band in the Bhutan hinterland, whatever their spatial scale and the dimensions of the associated drainage basins, calls for a common local supporting mechanism most probably related to active tectonic uplift. From there, we discuss possible interpretations of the observed landscape in Bhutan. Our results emphasize the need for a precise documentation of landscape dynamics and disequilibrium over various spatial scales as a first step in morpho-tectonic studies of active landscapes.