Waterfalls commonly exist near bounding faults of mountain ranges, where erosional bedrock catchments transition to depositional alluvial fans. We hypothesize that aggradation on alluvial fans can bury active faults, and that the faults accumulate slip in the subsurface to produce a bedrock scarp. Following entrenchment of the alluvial fan, the scarp can be exposed as a waterfall. To explore this hypothesis, we derived a geometric model for waterfall height that depends on alluvial fan length and the relative time scales of (1) tectonic uplift, (2) a forcing mechanism for cycles of fan aggradation and incision, and (3) a response of fan aggradation to changes in sediment flux. We find that the model is consistent with observations at Gower Gulch, Death Valley, California, where a man-made drainage capture event in 1941 caused rapid fan incision and exposed a waterfall at the canyon-fan transition. We also compared the model to 62 waterfalls in 18 catchments of the Death Valley area and found that at least 15 of the waterfalls are best explained by the fault-burial mechanism. Using field measurements of grain size and channel geometries, we show that the fault-burial mechanism can produce the observed waterfall heights, measuring 4–19 m, under a uniform climatic forcing scenario requiring variations of 20% in precipitation during the late Pleistocene. The fault-burial mechanism, through the creation of upstream propagating waterfalls, may allow catchment-fan systems to experience frequent cycles of enhanced erosion in catchments and deposition on fans that likely convolve tectonic and climatic signals.

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