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7 Major Geomorphic Theories of Landform


1. Davisian Theory:
The most popular theory of landform development was given by American geomorphologist William
Morris Davis. His concept of geographical cycle (or commonly known as cycle of erosion) provided a
genetic classification and systematic description of landforms.

According to Davis, geographical cycle is a period of time during which an uplifted landmass
undergoes its transformation by the process of land sculpture ending into low featureless plain or
peneplain (which Davis called peneplane), Daviss theory was the outcome of a set of theories and
models presented by him during the 1880s and 1890s.

He propounded the model of complete cycle of river life in his essay on The Rivers and Valleys of
Pennsylvania (1889), and that of geographical cycle (1899) and slope evolution. He, under the
concept of complete cycle of river life, postulated the cycle concept of progressive development of
erosional stream valleys, and through the geographical cycle described the sequential development of
landforms through time.

However, Prof. Savindra Singh says that the general theory of landform development of Davis is not
the geographical cycle as many of the geomorphologists believe. Daviss theory may be expressed as:
There are sequential changes in landforms through time (passing through youth, mature and old
stages) and these sequential changes are directed towards well defined end product development of

2. Pencks Theory:
According to German geomorphologist Walther Penck, the characteristics of landforms of a given
region are related to the tectonic activity of that region. Contrary to the Davisian concept that
landscape is a function of structure, process and time (stage), Penck put forward his view that
geomorphic forms are an expression of the phase and rate of uplift in relation to the rate of
degradation, where it is assumed that interaction between the two factors, uplift and degradation, is
continuous. According to Pencks view the landforms observed at any given site give expression to the
relation between the two factors of uplift and degradation that has been or is in effect, and not to a
stage in a progressive sequence.

The main premises of Penckian model of landscape development are the following:
1. The morphological characteristics of any region of the earths surface is the result of competition
between crustal movement and denudation processes.

2. On the basis of morphological characteristics tectonic movements can be explained and their causal
factors ascertained.
3. Development of landscape is not time- dependent.

4. The shape of the hillslope depends on the relative rates of valley incision by rivers and removal of
debris from the hill-slope.

5. Three crustal states are witnessed: (a) state of crustal stability with no active displacement; (b) state
of initial domed uplift in a limited area followed by widespread unlift; and (c) state of extensive
crustal upliftment.

6. Upliftment and erosion are always coexistent.

7. Three states of adjustment between crustal movement and valley deepening are observed: (a) if for
a longer time crustal upliftment remains constant, the vertical erosion by the river is such that there is
balance between the rate of upliftment and erosion; (b) if the rate of uplift is more than the rate of
valley deepening, then the channel gradient continues to increase till the rate of valley deepening
matches with the rate of upliftment and the state of equilibrium is attained when both become equal;
and (c) if the rate of valley deepening is more than the rate of crustal uplifment, then the channel
gradient is lowered to such an extent that the rates of upliftment and erosion become equal and the
state of equilibrium is attained.

However, it must be noted that there was certain misunderstanding in the interpretation of Pencks
work as it was published in obscure German language. Pencka morphological system was severely
criticised in the United States in the same way the geographical cycle was criticised in Germany.
Pencks concepts of parallel retreat of slope and continued crustal movements were subjected to
severe criticism by many geomorphologists and geologists.

However, despite lack of support for Pencks concept of long continued upliftment and tectonic
speculations, his concepts of slope development and weathering processes are of immense
geomorphological significance.

3. Gilberts Theory:
On the basis of his investigation of landforms and the processes associated with their formation in
different parts of the United States, Grove Karl Gilbert formulated a set of principles to explain
geomorphic features. The concepts and principles propounded by Gilbert provided the base for the
development of the dynamic equilibrium theory involving time- independent development of
landforms and it subsequently became the pivot of drastic methodological shift in geomorphology.

According to Gilbert, the landscape is the result of two competing tendencies i.e. tendency towards
variability (when driving force exceeds resisting force) and tendency towards uniformity (when
driving force equals resisting force). Gilbert says landscapes remain in equilibrium condition, their
history is rhythmic punctuated by oscillatory changes and their forms are punctuated by frictional
rhythms arising out of the mechanism of driving and resisting forces. The three major components of
Gilberts geomorphic principles are: the concept of quantification, the concept of time and the concept
of equilibrium.

Gilberts concept of equilibrium, also known as the principle of least force, envisages that in the final
form of any functional system the sum of the forces acting on the final form equaled zero. There are
two types of forces: driving force and resisting force. He tried to explain the formation of laccoliths
resulting from vulcanicity during his field studies by applying the concept of equilibrium.

According to him the formation of laccolith depends on the competence of during force (rise of
magma) and resisting force (overlying pressure of superincumbent load). The formation and growth
of laccoliths continue so long as the driving force of rising magma is not countered by resisting force
of equal magnitude acting downwards. When the driving force is balanced by the resisting force, the
growth of laccolith becomes static. A state of equilibrium is achieved and thus the principle of least
work becomes operative wherein the sum of driving and resisting forces becomes zero.

4. Theory of L.C. King:

L.C. Kings theory of landform development is based on his studies of landforms in arid, semi-arid
and savanna regions of South Africa. He formulated a set of cyclic models (such as landscape cycle,
epigene cycle, pediplanation cycle, hillslope cycle, etc.) and asserted that these are practicable in other
parts of globe as well. The reference system of Kings model says there is uniform development of
landforms in varying environmental conditions and there is insignificant influence of climatic changes
in the development of fluvially originated landforms.

Major landscapes in all the continents have been evolved by rhythmic global tectonic events. There is
continuous migration (retreat) of hillslope and such retreat is always in the form of parallel retreat.
For King, the profile of an ideal hillslope consists of all four elements of slope, viz., summit, scarp,
debris slope and pediments and such hillslopes develop in all regions and in all climates where there
is sufficient relief and fluvial process is the dominant agent of denudation.

Pointing out that the Davisian model of arid cycle of erosion was inadequate to explain all types of
landscapes, King, in the 1940s, propounded a new cyclic model of pediplanation (or pediplanation
cycle) to explain the unique landscapes that he observed in the arid, semi-arid and savanna parts of
Africa. According to King, the African landscape consisted of three basic elements: (a) rock pediments
flanking river valleys and having concave slope varying in angle from 1.5 to 7 cut into solid rocks;
and (b) scarps having steep slopes bounding the uplands and varying in angle from 15 to 30 and
experiencing parallel retreat due to backwasting by weathering and rainwash; (c) steep sided residual
hills known as inselbergs (bornhardts) which vary in size and shape. The size of the inselbergs is
dependent on the magnitude of erosion and their shape on the nature of underlying structure.

It is worth noting that Kings concept of upliftment and crustal stability is similar to the concept of
Davis. The cycle of pediplanation is performed by twin processes of scarp retreat and pedimentation.
Each cycle begins with rapid rate of upliftment followed by long period of crustal (tectonic) stability.
The cycle of pediplanation begins with the uplift of previously formed pediplains and not of any
structural unit. The pediplanation cycle passes through the stages of youth, mature and old as in the
Davisian cycle of erosion.

However, there are certain differences between the models of King and Davis. Daviss peneplain is
formed due to down wasting while Kings pediplain is formed due to coalescence and integration of
several pediments which are formed due to parallel scarp retreat. Once formed, Daviss peneplain
does not experience further growth until it is reuplifted. When uplifted, new erosional cycle is
initiated and the rivers are rejuvenated.

On the other hand, Kings pediplain once formed further grows headward. New scarp is initiated at
the far end of the previously formed pediplain which is progressively consumed by the retreat of new
scarp and thus second pediplain is formed while the former pediplain experiences decrease in its
extent. The process continues and a series of intersecting pediplains are formed which extend
headward. Hence, Kings pediplains, so formed, are analogous to Pencks piedmont treppen.

Critique of Kings Model:

Kings model was subjected to many criticisms:

(a) Kings model was limited to the African experience.

(b) It is doubtful to assert that there is uniform development of landscapes in different environmental

(c) Kings concept of antique pediplanation remains questionable.

5. Theory of J.T. Hack:

American geomorphologist J.T. Hack made a serious attempt to fill the conceptual vacuum created by
the criticism and rejection of Davisian evolutionary model of geographical cycle and Pencks
morphological system. Hack pointed out that multi-level landscape (polycyclic relief) cannot be
explained in terms of multiple erosion cycle (Davisian notion), rather these landscapes can be
explained in terms of dynamic equilibrium theory.

According to Hack, geomorphic system is an open system and so long as energy remains constant in
the geomorphic system, landscape remains in the steady state condition despite the lowering in the
landscape by denudational processes. Hacks model envisages time-independent development of
landscape. In other words, the shape of the landforms reflects the balance between the resistance of
the underlying materials to erosion and the erosive energy of the active processes.

The main assumptions of the Hackian model of landscape development are:

(a) There is balance between denudational processes and rock resistance.

(b) There is uniform rate of downwasting in all components of landscapes.

(c) Differences and characteristics of form are explicable in terms of spatial relations in which
geologic patterns are primary consideration.

(d) The denudational processes which operate at present have been carved out of the earths surface

(e) There is lithologic adjustment to landforms.

6. Theory of Morisawa:
American geomorphologist Marie Morisawa formulated a geomorphic model based on tectonic
movements and changes. She analysed the results of goemorphological studies pertaining to erosion
and reliefs undertaken by different geomorphologists in different parts of the world and concluded
that there is high rate of erosion on uplifted landmass because potential energy required for erosion
increases due to greater height and high potential energy results in high kinetic energy due to
increased channel flow velocity which ultimately accelerates erosion. She said that the rate of
denudation and basin reliefs were highly positively correlated and 90 per cent of the total differences
in erosion rates in different drainage basins were due to average reliefs of the basins.

The main premises of Morisawas tectono- geomorphic model are:

(a) Landforms are the result of inequality of force or inequality of resistance or of both.

(b) The variations in landforms are due to inequality of rates of operation of exogenetic processes
acting on different geomaterials of the earths surface and inequality of the rates of endogenetic

(c) Nature tends to attain balance or equilibrium between force (of processes) and resistance of
geomaterials. However, this balance is not always maintained since the earth is unstable and
dynamic. The isostatic feedback also affects the rates of upliftment and erosion, and deposition and

(d) The current landforms are the result of difference of ratios of the actions of endogenetic and
exogenetic processes.

(e) When uplifted or newly created, a landmass undergoes rapid transformation of its form through
exogenetic (denudational) processes. The rate of transformation is dependent on the nature of force
and resistance.

(f) Some morphological features can be explained in terms of plate tectonics.

7. Theory of S.A. Schumm:

Schumms theory is based on the episodic erosion model. He stated that denudation is not gradual
and continuous, rather it is episodic. The geomorphic history of landscape development, according to
Schumm, includes numerous periods of rapid erosion (period of instability) and deposition. Period of
rapid erosion is followed by long period of deposition. There is repetition of periods of erosion and
deposition and thus there is complexity in the evolution and development of landforms.

Schumm says the complexity of landscape can be explained in terms of two geomorphic concepts: (a)
concept of geomorphic thresholds, and (b) concept of complex response. Explaining these two
concepts Prof. Savindra Singh writes, The concept of geomorphic thresholds suggests that changes
may occur in the fluvial system but these changes are not occasioned by external factors such as
isostatic upliftment, but are effected by inherent geomorphic controls of eroding fluvial system (say
drainage basin).

For instance, if there is deposition of eroded sediments in a fluvial system, these deposited sediments
become unstable at a critical threshold slope i.e. channel slope gradient increases due to
sedimentation and a limit (threshold) is attained when no further sediments may be accommodated.
Consequently, the channel gradient becomes such (due to deposition) that erosion of deposited
sediments begins due to increased channel flow velocity. It is evident that such changes (deposition
and erosion) have not been effected by external variables of the fluvial system but have been caused
by the internal geomorphic controls.

According to the concept of complex response, when a fluvial system is rejuvenated (say, drainage
basin), then the response of the fluvial system to rejuvenation is not just renewed accelerated rate of
valley deepening but the response is in the form of attainment of new equilibrium (it may be stated
that the equilibrium is disturbed due to rejuvenation) through down cutting, aggradation and
renewed erosion. If the effects of external variables of the fluvial system (isostatic upliftment) is
combined with geomorphic thresholds and complex response then at least during the initial stage
(youth), the geomorphic cycle of erosion cannot be progressive; rather, there would be complex
response of events of relative periods of stability separated by periods of episodic erosion. In other
words, there is repetition of periods of erosion and erosionless periods (periods of stability), the
response (result) of which is that, the fluvial system and the resultant landscape become very
complex. The main reason of the resultant complexity of landscape is the fact that if any event occurs
in any segment of a river, there is no instantaneous impact of such event on the entire channel

Though some of Schumms ideas did not find favour with many geomorphologists, modern studies of
thresholds and complex response have suggested to synthesise the Davisian cyclic decay model and
the steady state model of Gilbert into an organic vision of landform evolution.