- The Dead Sea has been continuously dropping 0·4–1·0 m yr−1 since the middle of the 20th century and thus provides a unique field laboratory for studying in real time the response of drainage systems to a non-tectonic base-level fall. The aim of this work is to study the short-term ongoing erosive response to a rapid base-level drop in a small, steep-fronted, erodible fan-delta setting. The work explores the controls of the steep Qedem fan-delta, guided by its clinoform structure, on its incision. Longitudinal profiles of the fan-delta and of its entrenched channel were measured in the field. Sedimentary facies changes – fluviatile, shallow lacustrine and beach – were followed along exposures. The existence of large boulders provided an opportunity to examine the uncertain role of armouring and boulder flux on incision. The field study was combined with digital elevation models (DEMs) that were extracted from pairs of overlapping aerial photos. Maps of erosion and deposition were prepared using a change detection algorithm. The longitudinal profile of the entrenched channel was found to be steep and linear. The outlet temporarily ‘hangs’ elevated and ungraded above the retreating lake level, indicating years without incision flow events, which cause lags in response to the rapid lake level drop. In spite of the large boulders, the small drainage basin and precipitation volume over the basin of the Qedem, the recorded vertical incision rates in the unconsolidated sediments are as high as 0·8 m yr−1, i.e. similar to those of the largest wadis draining to the Dead Sea. The steep front of the fan-delta is suggested to be a main factor controlling the efficient incision. A unique transport mechanism of rolling boulders, following undercutting, contributed to the entrenchment efficiency. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.