Upstream knickpoint propagation is an important mechanism for channel incision, and it communicates changes in climate, sea level, and tectonics throughout a landscape. Few studies have directly measured the long-term rate of knickpoint retreat, however, and the mechanisms for knickpoint initiation are debated. Here, we use cosmogenic 3He exposure dating to document the retreat rate of a waterfall in Ka’ula’ula Valley, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i, an often-used site for knickpoint-erosion modeling. Cosmogenic exposure ages of abandoned surfaces are oldest near the coast (120 ka) and systematically decrease with upstream distance toward the waterfall (<10 ka), suggesting that the waterfall migrated nearly 4 km over the past 120 k.y. at an average rate of 33 mm/yr. Upstream of the knickpoint, cosmogenic nuclide concentrations in the channel are approximately uniform and indicate steady-state vertical erosion at a rate of ∼0.03 mm/yr. Field observations and topographic analysis suggest that waterfall retreat is dominated by block toppling, with sediment transport below the waterfall actively occurring by debris flows. Knickpoint initiation was previously attributed to a submarine landslide ca. 4 Ma; however, our dating results, bathymetric analysis, and landscape-evolution modeling support knickpoint generation by wave-induced sea-cliff erosion during the last interglacial sea-level highstand ca. 120–130 ka. We illustrate that knickpoint generation during sea-level highstands, as opposed to the typical case of sea-level fall, is an important relief-generating mechanism on stable or subsiding steep coasts, and likely drives transient pulses of significant sediment flux.

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