Cycle of erosion

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The geographic cycle or cycle of erosion is an idealized model that explains the development of relief in landscapes.[1] The model starts with the erosion that follows uplift of land above a base level and ends eventually in the formation of a peneplain.[1] Landscapes that bear evidence of more than one cycle of erosion are termed "polycyclical".[1] The cycle of erosion and some of its associated concepts have, despite popularity, been a subject of much criticism.

The model[edit]

William Morris Davis, the originator of the model, divided it into stages whose transition is gradual. The model begins with an uplifted or to-be-uplifted landscape. Then Davis defined a youthful stage where river incision is the dominant process shaping the landscape. During the youthful stage height differences between uplands and valley bottoms increase rapidly. The youthful stage is followed by a mature stage where height differences between valley bottoms and uplands are greatest. Beginning in the mature stage slope decrease becomes a more important phenomenon and uplands lose height more rapidly than rivers incise, effectively diminishing relief. In the very latest stage erosion has acted so long that the landscape – despite original height – is reduced into a rolling lowland. This landscape of low relief is called a peneplain and may contain residual heights standing out from the general level. The peneplain can be uplifted starting a second erosion cycle.[2]

Davis acknowledged that a full cycle was a special case and that initial uplift was not necessarily rapid nor followed by a prolonged period of quiescence. However, as Walther Penck pointed it out, Davis and his followers did usually –if not almost always– employed a rapid uplift and quiescence approach to explain landscapes.[3] This means that the model, as understood by most, assumes rapid and episodic tectonic uplift.[4] Another characteristic of the model is that slopes evolve by decline, meaning that initially steep slopes are worn out by erosion forming successively gentler slopes.[4][A] Weaknesses of the model are that it is mostly theoretical and deductive in nature; further it does not take into account the complexity of tectonic movements or climate change. The nature of surface processes is also poorly represented by the model.[4] The model in its original form is intended to explain relief development in temperate landscapes where erosion by running water is assumed to be of prime importance.[2][4]Nevertheless, the cycle of erosion has been extended, with modifications, into arid, glacial, coastal, karst and periglacial areas.[4]

Variants of the cycle of erosion[4]
Environment Proposed by Details
Arid Davis, 1905 At the beginning of the cycle of erosion in arid climate there are numerous small basins to where material is washed during the scarce rainfall events. In the next stage (youthful stage) valleys are developed and highlands dissected by these. Gentle slopes and basins accumulated material derived from the highlands. In the mature stage drainage basins coalesce. At the end a stage is reached where the terrain has lost much of its relief and deflation hollows interfere with the drainage systems, breaking it up into local systems. During all stages sand and dust might be exported by wind to other landscapes.[7]
Coastal Johnson, 1919 At the beginning of a cycle of erosion submerged coasts usually have steep slopes entering the sea. At a youthful stage wave erosion and other agents have transformed the slope into a cliff with a wave-cut platform at its base. The eroded material either adds to a nearby submarine talus slope or is transported further offshore. As the platform grows waves lose more energy traversing it and thus become less effective in eroding the cliff. By the same time the cliff has grown in height and it becomes increasingly difficult for the waves to evacuate debris from the base of the cliff. At a mature stage cliff erosion is at equilibrium with the removal of debris by the waves and beaches may form. Continuing into an old stage the cliff becomes a less steep slope. At a very old age the cliff becomes low and flattish and disappears from the simple view.[8]
Glacial Davis, 1900
Karst Cvijić, 1918
Periglacial Peltier, 1950 The periglacial cycle of erosion begins with a non-periglaciated landscape. Once-periglaciated mass wasting of regolith exposes bedrock in the upper slopes. These outcrops are then subject to frost weathering that makes slopes retreat forming extensive blockfields at the base of the bedrock areas. At a later stage solifluction wears down summits and fills in topographic lows.[9]


William Morris Davis (1850–1934), the creator of the model

Early acclaim and criticism[edit]

After the model was first developed by William Morris Davis around 1900 it received wide acclaim, but was never universally accepted.[1][4] The initial enthusiasm and strength of the cycle of erosion model has been attributed to various causes. First, the model provided a framework to study areas and epochs in Earth history where erosion is the dominant process. Second, the model fitted well into the grand evolutionary thought that had emerged in the 19th century with Darwin's evolution theory.[10][B] Lastly, some popularity was indebted to Davis's lucid writing style. The model achieved its greatest popularity in the 1900–39 period when numerous studies on denudation chronology based on the model were published. In these studies usually two to five erosion cycles were identified. The approach of doing denudation chronology with the cycle of erosion model lost popularity from the 1930s onward. Arguably this was so because the approach did not provide any unforeseeable insights. An increasing number of geomorphologists had begun to study processes happening in the present and not in the past as done with the cycle of erosion model. These process geomorphologists soon realized some of their observations were at odds with Davis's model. Other geomorphologists turned away from the cycle of erosion to work instead on climatic or tectonic geomorphology.[10]

While the model was at first widely accepted among Anglo-Saxon scholars,[4] in Continental Europe it met some resistance with German scholars Albrecht and Walther Penck, Siegfried Passarge and Alfred Hettner standing out as early opponents to the model.[12] Walther Penck and Lester Charles King proposed alternative cycle theories in the 1920s and 1960s respectively.[1]

Intensified criticism (1960s)[edit]

Richard Chorley (1927–2002), a geomorphologist known for his criticism of the cycle of erosion. In Cliff Ollier's words "'Davis bashing' was a theme" for him.[13]

While King's ideas were an attempt at refuting Davis's cycle of erosion they were themselves of cyclical nature and contributed to ushering in a wave of criticism in 1960s against both his and Davis's models.[4][14] This criticism has been called "Davis bashing" by Cliff Ollier and constitutes to Ollier the ridicule of cyclical theories in geomorphology without any alternative model being proposed.[14]

The notions of time, uplift, slope and drainage density evolution in the erosion cycle have been criticized.[10] Further the validity of some whole concepts associated with the cycle of erosion have been questioned including stream grade, base level and most of all that of peneplains.[10]

Writing in 1971 geomorphologist Ronald Flemal summarized the situation as follows:[10]

Currently geomorphologists are divided into three camps: those who still adhere to Davisian concepts, either in the original or a modified form; those who desire to replace Davisian ideas by a different cyclic erosional model; and those who reject cyclic erosion completely.

Modern status[edit]

Despite considerable criticism the cycle of erosion model has remained part of the science of geomorphology.[15] The model or theory has never been proved wrong,[15] but neither has it been proven.[16] The inherent difficulties of the model have instead made geomorphological research to advance along other lines.[15] In contrast to its disputed status in geomorphology, the cycle of erosion model is a common approach used to establish denudation chronologies, and is thus an important concept in the science of historical geology.[17] While acknowledging its shortcomings modern geomorphologists Andrew Goudie and Karna Lidmar-Bergström have praised it for its elegancy and pedagogical value respectively.[4][1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alternative models of slope evolution are parallel slope and scarp retreat, championed by Lester Charles King, and slope replacement first proposed by Walther Penck.[5] King considered scarp retreat a dominant process across the globe and claimed that slope decline was a special case of slope development seen only in very weak rocks that could not maintain a scarp.[6] The modern understanding is that the evolution of slopes is much more complex than the classical models of decline, replacement and retreat imply.[5]
  2. ^ However, the model was more influenced by Neo-Lamarckian thought that was currency in late 19th-century United States. Darwin's ideas were a lesser influence. As such the model cycle of erosion employs concept of "evolution" rather than "change" implying a predictable direction of landscape and landform change. It is thought that Davis received some Neo-Lamarckian influence from his tutor Nathaniel Shaler. Other influences included the biological theories of orthogenesis and recapitulation both of which are linked to Neo-Lamarckianism.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lidmar-Bergström, Karna. "erosionscykel". Nationalencyklopedin (in Swedish). Cydonia Development. Retrieved June 22, 2016. 
  2. ^ a b Davis, William M. (1899). "The Geographical Cycle". The Geographical Journal. 14 (5): 481–504. 
  3. ^ Chorley et al. 2005, pp. 737–738, 790
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Goudie, A.S. (2004). "Cycle of erosion". In Goudie, A.S. Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. pp. 223–224. 
  5. ^ a b Summerfield, Michael A. (1991). "Exogenic processes and landforms". Global Geomorphology: An introduction to the study of landforms. Pearson Education. pp. 184–185. ISBN 0-582-30156-4. 
  6. ^ Twidale, C.R. (1992), "King of the plains: Lester King's contributions to geomorphology", Geomorphology, 5: 491–509 
  7. ^ Davis, W.M. (1905). "The Geographical Cycle in an Arid Climate". The Journal of Geology. 13 (5): 381–407. 
  8. ^ Johnson, 199–228
  9. ^ French, Hugh M. (2007). The Periglacial Environment (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons Ltd. pp. 245–246. ISBN 978-0-470-86588-0. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Flemal, Ronald C. (1971). "The Attack on the Davisian System Of Geomorphology: A Synopsis": 3–13. 
  11. ^ Inkpen, Rob; Collier, Peter (2007). "Neo-Lamarckianism and the Davisian cycle of erosion". Géomorphologie. 13 (2): 113–124. 
  12. ^ Chorley et al. 2005, p. 572
  13. ^ Ollier, Cliff (2014). "Some Principles in the Study of Plantion Surfaces". In Rabassa, Jorge; Ollier, Cliff. Gondwana Landscapes in southern South America. Springer. pp. 47–48. 
  14. ^ a b Ollier, Cliff (1995). "Classics in physical geography revisited". Progress in Physical Geography. 19 (3): 371–377. 
  15. ^ a b c Slaymaker, Olav (2004). "Geomorphic evolution". In Goudie, A.S. Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. pp. 420–422. 
  16. ^ Roy, Andre. Contemporary Meanings in Physical Geography: From What to Why?. p. 5. 
  17. ^ Jones, David K.C. (2004). "Denudation chronology". In Goudie, A.S. Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. pp. 244–248. 


  • Don J. Easterbrook (1999), Surface Processes and Landforms; Second Edition; Chapter Six
  • Chorley, Richard J.; Beckinsale, Robert P.; Dunn, Antony J. (2005) [1973]. "Chapter Twenty-Two". The History of the Study of Landforms. Volume Two. Taylor & Francis e-Library. 
  • Johnson, Douglas Wilson (1919). Shore Processes and Shoreline Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

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