The fluid system within a critically tapering orogenic wedge is governed by complex interactions between topographic drive, thermal gradients, prograde dehydration reactions, internal structure, and regional tectonic compaction. Despite this complexity, topography is widely known to be the primary driving potential responsible for basin-scale fluid migration within the upper 7–10 km of an orogenic wedge. In recent years, investigators have revisited the problem of basin-scale fluid flow with an emphasis on depth-decaying permeability, which is a geologic phenomenon that is seldom accounted for in regional flow models. These recent investigations have shown that depth-dependent permeability at the basin scale strongly influences the relationship between local- and regional-scale flow paths. Here we investigate topography driven fluid flow within an orogenic wedge using a numerical modeling experiment designed to assess first-order fluid system behavior when permeability decreases systematically with depth. Critical taper theory is invoked to define two-dimensional basin geometry, and three subaerially exposed orogenic wedge models are presented with critical taper angles of 2°, 4°, and 10°. To assess the combined influence of topographic slope and depth-dependent permeability, a constant rate infiltration is applied at the wedge surface and a transient simulation is performed within each model for 20 m.y. Our results suggest that (1) depth-dependent permeability severely limits the penetration depth of infiltrating water within broadly tapering orogenic wedge systems, (2) fluid system evolution within a narrowly tapering orogenic wedge (i.e., ≤2°) is governed by local-scale topography superimposed on the regional gradient, (3) the influence of subbasin topography on local-scale fluid circulation is suppressed as the regional topographic gradient increases, and (4) the spatial distribution of groundwater residence time is fundamentally different when topographic slope exceeds 3°.

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