Water versus ice: The competing roles of modern climate and Pleistocene glacial erosion in the Central Alps of Switzerland

Schlunegger, Fritz; Norton, Kevin P. (2013). Water versus ice: The competing roles of modern climate and Pleistocene glacial erosion in the Central Alps of Switzerland. Tectonophysics, 602, pp. 370-381. Elsevier 10.1016/j.tecto.2013.03.027

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Recent studies have identified relationships between landscape form, erosion and climate in regions of landscape rejuvenation, associated with increased denudation. Most of these landscapes are located in non-glaciated mountain ranges and are characterized by transient geomorphic features. The landscapes of the Swiss Alps are likewise in a transient geomorphic state as seen by multiple knickzones. In this mountain belt, the transient state has been related to erosional effects during the Late Glacial Maximum (LGM). Here, we focus on the catchment scale and categorize hillslopes based on erosional mechanisms, landscape form and landcover. We then explore relationships of these variables to precipitation and extent of LGM glaciers to disentangle modern versus palaeo controls on the modern shape of the Alpine landscape. We find that in grasslands, the downslope flux of material mainly involves unconsolidated material through hillslope creep, testifying a transport-limited erosional regime. Alternatively, strength-limited hillslopes, where erosion is driven by bedrock failure, are covered by forests and/or expose bedrock, and they display oversteepened hillslopes and channels. There, hillslope gradients and relief are more closely correlated with LGM ice occurrence than with precipitation or the erodibility of the underlying bedrock. We relate the spatial occurrence of the transport- and strength-limited process domains to the erosive effects of LGM glaciers. In particular, strength-limited, rock dominated basins are situated above the equilibrium line altitude (ELA) of the LGM, reflecting the ability of glaciers to scour the landscape beyond threshold slope conditions. In contrast, transport-limited, soil-mantled landscapes are common below the ELA. Hillslopes covered by forests occupy the elevations around the ELA and are constrained by the tree line. We conclude that the current erosional forces at work in the Central Alps are still responding to LGM glaciation, and that the modern climate has not yet impacted on the modern landscape.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences

UniBE Contributor:

Schlunegger, Fritz


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology
500 Science








Fritz Schlunegger

Date Deposited:

11 Aug 2014 11:05

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 14:31

Publisher DOI:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

Swiss Alps, Glacial conditioning, Climate and erosion, Hillslope form, Water versus ice, Alpine landscape





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