Numerical modeling of groundwater-driven stream network evolution in low-relief post-glacial landscapes

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In the low-relief post-glacial landscapes of the Central Lowlands of the United States, fluvial networks formed and expanded following deglaciation despite the low slopes and large fraction of the land surface occupied by closed depressions. Low relief topography allows for subtle surface water divides and increases the likelihood that groundwater divides do not coincide with surface water divides. We investigate how groundwater transfer across subtle surface water divides facilitates channel network expansion using a numerical model built on the Landlab platform. Our model simulates surface and subsurface water routing and fluvial erosion. We consider two end-member scenarios for surface water routing, one in which surface water in closed depressions is forced to connect to basin outlets (routing) and one in which surface water in closed depressions is lost to evapotranspiration (no routing). Groundwater is modeled as fully saturated flow within a confined aquifer. Groundwater emerges as surface water where the landscape has eroded to a specified depth. We held the total water flux constant and varied the fraction of water introduced as groundwater versus precipitation. Channel growth is significantly faster in routing cases than no-routing cases given identical groundwater fractions. In both routing and no-routing cases, channel expansion is fastest when ~30% of the total water enters the system as groundwater. Groundwater contributions also produce distinctive morphology including steepened channel profiles below groundwater seeps. Groundwater head gradients evolve with topography and groundwater-fed channels can grow more quickly than channels with larger surface water catchments. We conclude that rates of channel network growth in low-relief post-glacial areas are sensitive to groundwater contributions. More broadly, our findings suggest that landscape evolution models may benefit from more detailed representation of hydrologic processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)658-671
Number of pages14
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Landlab
  • fluvial networks
  • groundwater
  • landscape evolution
  • post-glacial

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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