Incised ephemeral channels provide a window into the fluvial processes that help sculpt rangeland landscapes. This paper presents observations of ephemeral channels and valley networks in the high plains of Colorado, USA, with an eye toward painting a picture of the ingredients that must be included in mathematical models of landscape evolution in such environments. Channel incision in the study area is driven by summer thunderstorms, which can with reasonable frequency (3–5 yr) generate boundary shear stresses high enough to penetrate the highly resistant vegetation armor, but only within erosional hot spots where hydraulic forces are amplified by channel constriction and locally steep gradients. Focusing of erosion at these hot spots (which correspond to knickpoints and channel heads) is amplified by the small areal footprint and short “erosional reach” of most convective storms. Upstream migration of knickpoints creates a pattern of short, active channel reaches separated by unchanneled or weakly channeled, fully vegetated stable reaches. Based on our observations, we interpret the necessary and sufficient conditions leading to the observed channel forms and dynamics as: (1) a resistant vegetation layer overlying an erodible substrate, which sets up a conditional instability through which erosional perturbations can grow by positive feedback; (2) high flow variability; (3) moderate to high substrate cohesion; and (4) a high volume fraction of fine-grained erodible material. Concave-upward valley long profiles are interpreted as a trade-off between downstream-increasing flood frequency and downstream-decreasing flood effectiveness. The observed process dynamics imply that long-term rates of valley incision should be especially sensitive to climatic oscillations between episodes of drought and warm-season convective rainfall.

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