Base level

In geology and geomorphology a base level is the lower limit for an erosion process.[1] The modern term was introduced by John Wesley Powell in 1875.[1] The term was subsequently appropriated by William Morris Davis who used it in his cycle of erosion theory.[1][2] The "ultimate base level" is the plane that results from projection of the sea level under landmasses.[1] It is to this base level that topography tends to approach due to erosion, eventually forming a peneplain close to the end of a cycle of erosion.[3][4][5][6]

There are also lesser structural base levels where erosion is delayed by resistant rocks.[1] Examples of this include karst regions underlain by insoluble rock.[7] Base levels may be local when large landmasses are far from the sea or disconnected from it, as in the case of endorheic basins.[1] An example of this is the Messinian salinity crisis, in which the Mediterranean Sea dried up making the base level drop more than 1000 m below sea level.[8][9]

The height of a base level also influences the position of deltas and river terraces.[1] Together with river discharge and sediment flux the position of the base level influences the gradient, width and bed conditions in rivers.[10] A relative drop in base level can trigger re-adjustments in river profiles including knickpoint migration and abandonment of terraces leaving them "hanging".[11] Base level fall is also known to result in progradation of deltas and river sediment at lakes or sea.[12] If the base level falls below the continental shelf, rivers may form a plain of braided rivers until headward erosion penetrates enough inland from the shelfbreak.[12]

When base levels are stable or rising rivers may aggrade.[12] Rising base levels may also drown the lower courses of rivers creating rias. This happened in the Nile during the Zanclean flood when its lower course became, in a relatively short time, a large estuary extending up to 900 km inland from the Mediterranean coast.[9]

Base level change may be related to the following factors:

  1. Sea level change[1]
  2. Tectonic movement[1]
  3. River capture[1]
  4. Extensive sedimentation[13]


  1. Goudie, A.S. (2004). "Base level". In Goudie, A.S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. Routledge. p. 62.
  2. Orme, Anthony R. (2007). "The Rise and Fall of the Davisian Cycle of Erosion: Prelude, Fugue, Coda, and Sequel". Physical Geography. 28 (6): 474–506. doi:10.2747/0272-3646.28.6.474.
  3. Phillips, Jonathan D. (2002), "Erosion, isostatic response, and the missing peneplains", Geomorphology, Vol. 45, No. 3-4. Elsevier Archived 2010-01-24 at the Wayback Machine, 15 June 2002, pp. 225-241. doi:10.1016/S0169-555X(01)00156-8.
  4. Chorley, R.J. (1973). The History and Study of Landforms or The Development of Geomorphology. Vol. Two: The Life and Work of William Morris Davis, Methuen.
  5. Green, Paul F.; Lidmar-Bergström, Karna; Japsen, Peter; Bonow, Johan M.; Chalmers, James A. (2013). "Stratigraphic landscape analysis, thermochronology and the episodic development of elevated, passive continental margins". Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland Bulletin. 30: 18. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  6. Lidmar-Bergström, Karna; Bonow, Johan M.; Japsen, Peter (2013). "Stratigraphic Landscape Analysis and geomorphological paradigms: Scandinavia as an example of Phanerozoic uplift and subsidence". Global and Planetary Change. 100: 153–171. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2012.10.015.
  7. Ford, Derek C. (2004). "Cave". In Goudie, A.S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. Routledge. pp. 124–128.
  8. Fairbridge, Rhodes W.; Finkl Jr., Charles W. (1980). "Cratonic erosion unconformities and peneplains". The Journal of Geology. 88 (1): 69–86. doi:10.1086/628474.
  9. Goudie, A.S. (2005). "The drainage of Africa since the Cretaceous". Geomorphology. 67 (3–4): 437–456. doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2004.11.008.
  10. Whipple, Kelin X. (2004). "Bedrock channel". In Goudie, A.S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. Routledge. pp. 81–82.
  11. Spotila, James A. (2004). "Crustal deformation". In Goudie, A.S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Geomorphology. Routledge. pp. 201–203.
  12. Koss, John E.; Ethridge, Frank G.; Schumm, S.A. (1994). "An Experimental Study of the Effects of Base-Level Change on Fluvial, Coastal Plain and Shelf Systems". Journal of Sedimentary Research. 64B (2): 90–98. doi:10.1306/D4267F64-2B26-11D7-8648000102C1865D.
  13. Babault, Julien; Van Den Driessche, Jean; Bonnet, Stephanie; Castelltort, Sébastien; Crave, Alain (2005). "Origin of the highly elevated Pyrenean peneplain". Tectonics. 24 (2): n/a. doi:10.1029/2004TC001697.
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