Arid geomorphology: Changing perspectives on timescales of change

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Abstract

Arid geomorphological research continues apace with publications appearing in a diverse range of outlets. Themes common to several recent (2008–2009) books include greater emphasis on the global diversity of arid environments, the improved temporal framework for research findings, and the growing contribution of arid geomorphology to interdisciplinary research fields. Building on previous progress reports, this article touches on all three themes, but particularly highlights how applications of geochronology (e.g. cosmogenic isotope analysis, luminescence dating, and radiocarbon dating) are challenging or revolutionizing understanding of the timing and rates of arid geomorphological change. Four case studies from ‘iconic’ arid landscapes illustrate changes over different timescales: (1) canyons of the Colorado Plateau region, southwest USA (last ~5–6 Ma); (2) aeolian dunefields in central Australia (last ~1 Ma); (3) palaeolakes in the Kalahari, central southern Africa (last ~300 ka); and (4) alluvial and bedrock-controlled rivers in the southwest USA (last ~12 ka). Other developments across the suite of geochronological techniques are also contributing to improved understanding of arid landscape dynamics and the links with late Cenozoic environmental changes, biological (including hominin) evolution and cultural developments, but many outstanding issues remain. These include: (1) compiling large geochronological data sets to enable rigorous hypothesis testing; (2) establishing guiding conceptual frameworks to aid the selection and interpretation of geochronological data; (3) using multiple chronometers; (4) combining geochronology with other investigative techniques such as computational modelling; and (5) clarifying the causal links between events in different palaeorecords, even when temporal correlation can be established with a high degree of certainty. Despite recent rapid advances, today’s understanding of the antiquity and tempo of landscape development in Earth’s arid environments undoubtedly will be challenged and extended by further research, with particularly valuable perspectives likely to be provided by arid geomorphological research on other planetary bodies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)262-284
JournalProgress in Physical Geography
Volume36
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2012

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