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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Nature GeoscienceNature Geoscience (2019)






<p>Meandering rivers are diagnostic landforms of hydrologically active planets, and their migration regulates the continental component of biogeochemical cycles that stabilize climate and allow for life on Earth. The rise of river meanders on Earth has been linked to riverbank stabilization driven by the Palaeozoic evolution of plant life about 440 million years ago. Here we provide a fundamental test for this hypothesis using a global analysis of active meander migrations that includes previously ignored unvegetated rivers from the arid interiors of modern continents. When normalized by channel size, unvegetated meanders universally migrate an order of magnitude faster than vegetated ones. While providing irrefutable evidence that vegetation is not required for meander formation, we demonstrate how profoundly vegetation transformed the pace of change for Earth’s landscapes, and we at last offer a mechanistic explanation for the radically distinct stratigraphic records of barren and vegetated rivers. We posit that the migration slowdown driven by the rise of land plants dramatically impacted biogeochemical fluxes and rendered Earth’s landscapes even more hospitable to life. Therefore, the tenfold faster migration of unvegetated rivers may be key to deciphering the environments of barren worlds such as early Earth and Mars.</p>