Geomorphic research in the Black Hills and northern High Plains poses an intriguing hypothesis for the Cenozoic evolution of this salient of the Laramide Rockies. Most recently, geologists have appealed to late Cenozoic epeirogenic uplift or climate change to explain the post-Laramide unroofing of the Rockies. On the basis of field mapping and the interpretation of long-valley profiles, we conclude that the propagation of knickzones is the primary mechanism for exhumation in the Black Hills. Long profiles of major drainages show discrete breaks in the slope of the channel gradient that are not coincident with changes in rock type. We use the term knickzones to describe these features because their profiles are broadly convex over tens of kilometers. At and below the knickzone, the channel is incising into bedrock, abandoning a flood plain, and forming a terrace. Above the knickzone, the channel is much less incised, resulting in a broad valley bottom. Numerous examples of stream piracy are documented, and in each case, the capture is recorded in the same terrace level. These observations are consistent with migrating knickzones that have swept through Black Hills streams, rearranging drainages in their wake. We demonstrate there are two knickzone fronts associated with mapped terraces. Preliminary field evidence of soil development shows that these terraces are time transgressive in nature. Our data strongly suggest that knickzone propagation must be considered a viable mechanism driving late Cenozoic fluvial incision and exhumation of the northern High Plains and adjacent northern Rocky Mountains.
Additional publication details
Knickzone propagation in the Black Hills and northern High Plains: a different perspective on the late Cenozoic exhumation of the Laramide Rocky Mountains