Dense, lush rainforests in the Amazon. Rivers and streams running through Appalachia’s green hills and mountains. Rocky coasts of the Hawaiian islands battered by seas. Each of these landscapes poses mysteries that inspire Taylor Perron’s research. What he sees as “whodunits” about the Earth itself require investigations into how past climate, erosion, and plate tectonics can explain the present topography of the planet’s surface—and even help predict its future.

“As early as I was interested in Earth science, I think I had that sense,” says Perron, a professor of geology in the department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) who specializes in geomorphology, studying how landscapes form and evolve both on Earth and on other planets.

Many geomorphological whodunits begin in simple observation. For instance: One can observe that rivers all over the planet flow in branched patterns, but why?


Perron’s research group at MIT discovered that a competition between two erosional mechanisms—the gradual movement of soil down slopes and the carving of valleys by rivers as they flow through a landscape over eons—creates these identifiable patterns. In a 2012 paper in Nature, they described the “erosional mechanics” at work, presenting a mathematical model that predicts both the pattern of river branches and their size—down to the smallest tributaries—based on a landscape’s climate and the strength of the rock or soil the waters are cutting into.  

That willingness to get to the bottom of big questions, applying tools from multiple disciplines to deduce the history of Earth’s landscapes and predict how they might respond to further environmental changes, earned Perron a 2021 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, better known as a “genius grant.” 

Many researchers see Perron as “the leading architect of a renaissance in geomorphology, transitioning the field from emphasis on qualitative descriptions toward physics-based modeling,” says Robert van der Hilst, Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and head of EAPS. And that renaissance is much needed. “Some of the most common patterns in landscape evolution, and the underlying processes that control them, have long remained stubbornly enigmatic,” he says. 

A stark difference in rainfall between opposite sides of volcanic islands like Kauai creates a “natural experiment”

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By: Richard Byrne
Title: Topographies that talk
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Published Date: Wed, 27 Apr 2022 11:00:00 +0000

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