Modeling erosion and deposition of sediment using the diffusion equation is among the important subjects that are usually omitted from sedimentary geology textbooks. Part of the reason for this is that ‘conventional’ sedimentary geology tended to only pay lip service to earth surface processes and was more interested in describing the stratigraphic record than figuring how it relates to geomorphology. Nowadays, a good discussion of stratigraphy and sedimentology cannot ignore anymore what geomorphologists have learned about landscape evolution. (One textbook that clearly recognizes this is this one.)

But let’s get back to the subject of this post. Hillslope evolution can be modeled with the diffusion equation, one of the most common differential equations in science, applied for example to describe how differences in temperature are eliminated through heat conduction. In the case of heat, the heat flux is proportional to the rate of spatial temperature change; on hillslopes, the sediment flux is proportional to the spatial rate of change in elevation. This last quantity of course is the slope itself. In other words,

q = -k*dh/dx,

or

q = -k*slope,

where q is the volumetric sediment flux per unit length, k is a constant called diffusivity, h is the elevation, and x is the horizontal coordinate.

We also know that sediment does not disappear into thin air: considering a small area of the hillslope, the amount of sediment entering and leaving this area will determine how large the change in elevation will be:

dh/dt = -dq/dx,

in other words, deposition or erosion at any location is determined by the change in sediment flux.

Combining this equation with the previous one, we arrive to the diffusion equation:

dh/dt = k*d^{2}h/dx^{2}.

Note that the quantity on the right side is the second derivative (or curvature) of the slope profile. Large negative curvatures result in rapid erosion; places with large positive curvature have high rates of deposition. Through time, the bumps and troughs of the hillslope are smoothed out through erosion and deposition.

The simplest possible case is the diffusion of a fault scarp. The animation below illustrates how a 1 m high fault scarp gets smoothed out through time; the evolution of slope and curvature are also shown. The dashed line indicates the original topography, at time 0. [The plots were generated using Ramon Arrowsmith’s Matlab code].

More complicated slope profiles can be modeled as well; here is an example with two fault scarps:

Note how both erosion and deposition get much slower as the gradients become more uniform.

The simplicity of the diffusion equation makes it an attractive tool in modeling landscape evolution. In addition to hillslopes and fault scarps, it has been successfully applied in modeling – for example – river terraces, deltaic clinoforms, cinder cones, fluvial systems, and foreland basin stratigraphy. However, it is important to know when and where the assumptions behind it become invalid. For example, steep slopes often have a non-linear relationship between sediment flux and slope as mass movements dramatically increase sediment flux above a critical slope value. Also, the models shown here would fail to reproduce the topography of a system where not all sediment is deposited at the toe of the steeper slope, but a significant part is carried away by a river. And that brings us closer to advection; a subject that I might take notes about at another time.

Further reading: 1) The book “Quantitative Modeling of Earth Surface Processes” by Jon Pelletier has a chapter with lots of details about the diffusion equation. 2) Analog and numerical modeling of hillslope diffusion– a nice lab exercise.