The rate of denudation of river basins. This rate varies widely. The Mississippi basin may be taken as a representative land surface because of the varieties of surface, altitude and slope, climate, and underlying rocks which are included in its great extent. Careful measurements show that the Mississippi basin is now being lowered at a rate of one four-thousandth of a foot a year, or one foot in four thousand years. Taking this as the average rate of denudation for the land surfaces of the globe, estimates have been made of the length of time required at this rate to wash and wear the continents to the level of the sea. As the average elevation of the lands of the globe is reckoned at 2411 feet, this result would occur in nine or ten million years, if the present rate of denudation should remain unchanged. But even if no movements of the earth’s crust should lift or depress the continents, the rate of wear and the removal of waste from their surfaces will not remain the same. It must constantly decrease as the lands are worn nearer to sea level and their slopes become more gentle. The length of time required to wear them away is therefore far in excess of that just stated.
The drainage area of the Potomac is 11,000 square miles. The silt brought down in suspension in a year would cover a square mile to the depth of four feet. At what rate is the Potomac basin being lowered from this cause alone?
It is estimated that the Upper Ganges is lowering its basin at the rate of one foot in 823 years, and the Po one foot in 720 years. Why so much faster than the Potomac and the Mississippi?
How streams get their loads. The load of streams is derived from a number of sources, the larger part being supplied by the weathering of valley slopes. We have noticed how the mantle of waste creeps and washes to the stream ways. Watching the run-off during a rain, as it hurries muddy with waste along the gutter or washes down the hillside, we may see the beginning of the route by which the larger part of their load is delivered to rivers. Streams also secure some of their load by wearing it from their beds and banks,—a process called erosion.
Streams erode their beds chiefly by means of their bottom load,— the stones of various sizes and the sand and even the fine mud which they sweep along. With these tools they smooth, grind, and rasp the rock of their beds, using them in much the fashion of sandpaper or a file.
Weathering of river beds. The erosion of stream beds is greatly helped by the work of the weather. Especially at low water more or less of the bed is exposed to the action of frost and heat and cold, joints are opened, rocks are pried loose and broken up and made ready to be swept away by the stream at time of flood.