A Caltech Library Service

Formation of waterfalls by intermittent burial of active faults

Malatesta, Luca C. and Lamb, Michael P. (2018) Formation of waterfalls by intermittent burial of active faults. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 130 (3-4). pp. 522-536. ISSN 0016-7606. doi:10.1130/B31743.1.

[img] PDF (Supplementary data) - Supplemental Material
See Usage Policy.


Use this Persistent URL to link to this item:


Waterfalls commonly exist near bounding faults of mountain ranges, where erosional bedrock catchments transition to depositional alluvial fans. We hypothesize that aggradation on alluvial fans can bury active faults, and that the faults accumulate slip in the subsurface to produce a bedrock scarp. Following entrenchment of the alluvial fan, the scarp can be exposed as a waterfall. To explore this hypothesis, we derived a geometric model for waterfall height that depends on alluvial fan length and the relative time scales of (1) tectonic uplift, (2) a forcing mechanism for cycles of fan aggradation and incision, and (3) a response of fan aggradation to changes in sediment flux. We find that the model is consistent with observations at Gower Gulch, Death Valley, California, where a man-made drainage capture event in 1941 caused rapid fan incision and exposed a waterfall at the canyon-fan transition. We also compared the model to 62 waterfalls in 18 catchments of the Death Valley area and found that at least 15 of the waterfalls are best explained by the fault-burial mechanism. Using field measurements of grain size and channel geometries, we show that the fault-burial mechanism can produce the observed waterfall heights, measuring 4−19 m, under a uniform climatic forcing scenario requiring variations of 20% in precipitation during the late Pleistocene. The fault-burial mechanism, through the creation of upstream propagating waterfalls, may allow catchment-fan systems to experience frequent cycles of enhanced erosion in catchments and deposition on fans that likely convolve tectonic and climatic signals.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription
Lamb, Michael P.0000-0002-5701-0504
Additional Information:© 2017 Geological Society of America. Manuscript Received 9 January 2017; Revised Manuscript Received 28 June 2017; Manuscript Accepted 11 August 2017; Published: October 10, 2017. We thank Austin Chadwick, Alistair Hayden, Marisa Palucis, and Victoria Stevens for support in the field, and Mitch D’Arcy and Roman DiBiase for fruitful discussions. We thank S. Boulton and an anonymous reviewer as well as Associate Editor Karl Wegmann for their helpful reviews. This work was supported by a Doc. Mobility Fellowship of the Swiss National Science Foundation (project number: P1SKP2 158716) to L.C. Malatesta; National Science Foundation grant 1147381 to M.P. Lamb; and acknowledgment is made to the Donors of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund for partial support of this research (grant 53204- ND8). Field work in the Death Valley National Park is registered as study DEVA-00409 with permit DEVA-2014-SCI-0040.
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)P1SKP2 158716
American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund53204-ND8
Issue or Number:3-4
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20171031-160510919
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Luca C. Malatesta, Michael P. Lamb; Formation of waterfalls by intermittent burial of active faults. GSA Bulletin ; 130 (3-4): 522–536. doi:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:82824
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:01 Nov 2017 16:06
Last Modified:15 Nov 2021 19:53

Repository Staff Only: item control page