A theory of stochastic fluvial landscape evolution

G. G. Roberts, O. Wani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Geometries of eroding landscapes contain important information about geologic, climatic, biotic and geomorphic processes. They are also characterized by variability, which makes disentangling their origins challenging. Observations and physical models of fluvial processes, which set the pace of erosion on most continents, emphasize complexity and variability. By contrast, the spectral content of longitudinal river profiles and similarity of geometries at scales greater than approximately 100 km highlight relatively simple emergent properties. A general challenge then, addressed in this manuscript, is development of a theory of landscape evolution that embraces such scale-dependent insights. We do so by incorporating randomness and probability into a theory of fluvial erosion. First, we explore the use of stochastic differential equations of the Langevin type, and the Fokker-Planck equation, for predicting migration of erosional fronts. Second, analytical approaches incorporating distributions of driving forces, critical thresholds and associated proxies are developed. Finally, a linear programming approach is introduced, that, at its core, treats evolution of longitudinal profiles as a Markovian stochastic problem. The theory is developed essentially from first principles and incorporates physics governing fluvial erosion. We explore predictions of this theory, including the natural growth of discontinuities and scale-dependent evolution, including local complexity and emergent simplicity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20230456
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2283
StatePublished - Feb 7 2024


  • advection
  • fluvial
  • landscape evolution
  • Markov process
  • probability
  • stochastic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Mathematics
  • General Engineering
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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