Reading the Landscape
“The ultimate test of geomorphological knowledge lies in field interpretation of real world examples.”
In simple terms, geomorphology is the scientific study of the characteristics, origin and evolution of landscapes. Geomorphic enquiry entails the description and explanation of landscape forms, processes and genesis. Implicitly, therefore, it requires both a generic understanding of the physics and mechanics of process and an appreciation of the dynamic behaviour of landscapes as they evolve through time. The key to effective use of geomorphic knowledge is the capacity to place site-specific insights and relationships in their broader landscape context, framing contemporary process-form linkages in relation to historical imprints. Theoretical and modelling advances are pivotal in the development and testing of our understanding. However, the ultimate test of geomorphological knowledge lies in field interpretation of real world examples.
Landscapes determine the template upon which a range of biophysical processes interacts. Alterations to the geomorphic structure of rivers have enormous implications for the operation of biophysical fluxes that affect the movement of water, sediment, nutrients, etc. Hence, a geomorphic template provides a basis for ‘whole of system’ thinking, aiding the development of coherent plans and strategies for environmental management, guiding decision-making for concerns relating to global change, natural resource management, natural hazards, or conservation and rehabilitation issues.
Reading the landscape is a mechanism by which practitioners use their knowledge and experience to identify the assemblage of landforms or features that make up rivers, develop hypotheses to interpret the processes responsible for those landforms, determine how those features have/will adjust and change over time, and finally place this understanding in its spatial and temporal context. Successful interpretations draw on existing theory, questioning and testing its relevance to the system under investigation.
The constructivist (building block) approach to “Reading the Landscape” that is utilised in the River Styles® framework assesses how each part of a system relates to its whole in both spatial and temporal terms (Figure 1). As a fluvial geomorphologist, a range of different questions are asked and answered when “Reading the Landscape”.
An approach to reading the landscape
Step One: Identify individual landforms (geomorphic units) and the process-form relationships that determine their process regime
Step Three: Explain controls on the package and assemblage of landforms at the reach-scale and how they adjust over time
Step Two: Analyse and interpret the package and assemblage of landforms at the reach-scale and how they adjust over time
Step Four: Integrate understandings of geomorphic relationships at the catchment scale
Meaningful identification and description underpins effective explanation, providing a platform with which to make realistic predictions about likely future states. Landscape relationships are analysed through appreciation of system dynamics, recognising the variable imprint/memory of influences from the past. Behavioural regimes are differentiated from river changes as landscapes evolve. Human impacts upon rivers are differentiated from natural variability. The book, “Geomorphic Analysis of River Systems: An Approach to Reading the Landscape” outlines the contextual principles and theories with which to ground these analyses, and takes practitioners through how to undertake such analyses.