Fluvial geomorphic elements in modern sedimentary basins and their potential preservation in the rock record: A review

G S Weissmann, A J Hartley, L A Scuderi, G J Nichols, A Owen, S Wright, A.L. Felicia, F Holland, F.M.L. Anaya

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Since tectonic subsidence in sedimentary basins provides the potential for long-term facies preservation into the sedimentary record, analysis of geomorphic elements in modern continental sedimentary basins is required to understand facies relationships in sedimentary rocks. We use a database of over 700 modern sedimentary basins to characterize the fluvial geomorphology of sedimentary basins. Geomorphic elements were delineated in 10 representative sedimentary basins, focusing primarily on fluvial environments. Elements identified include distributive fluvial systems (DFS), tributive fluvial systems that occur between large DFS or in an axial position in the basin, lacustrine/playa, and eolian environments. The DFS elements include large DFS (N30 km in length), small DFS
(b30 km in length), coalesced DFS in bajada or piedmont plains, and incised DFS. Our results indicate that over 88% of fluvial deposits in the evaluated sedimentary basins are present as DFS, with tributary systems covering a
small portion (1–12%) of the basin. These geomorphic elements are commonly arranged hierarchically, with the largest transverse rivers forming large DFS and smaller transverse streams depositing smaller DFS in the areas between the larger DFS. These smaller streams commonly converge between the large DFS, forming a tributary system. Ultimately, most transverse rivers become tributary to the axial system in the sedimentary basin, with the axial system being confined between transverse DFS entering the basin from opposite sides of the basin, or a transverse DFS and the edge of the sedimentary basin. If axial systems are not confined by transverse DFS, they will form a DFS. Many of the world's largest rivers are located in the axial position of some sedimentary basins. Assuming uniformitarianism, sedimentary basins from the past most likely had a similar configuration of geomorphic elements.
Facies distributions in tributary positions and those on DFS appear to display specific morphologic patterns. Tributary rivers tend to increase in size in the downstream direction. Because axial tributary rivers are present in confined
settings in the sedimentary basin, they migrate back and forth within a relatively narrow belt (relative to the overall size of the sedimentary basin). Thus, axial tributary rivers tend to display amalgamated channel belt form with minimal preservation potential of floodplain deposits. Chute and neck cutoff avulsions are also common on meandering rivers in these settings. Where rivers on DFS exit their confining valley on the basin margin, sediment transport capacity is reduced and sediment deposition occurs resulting in development of a ‘valley exit’ nodal avulsion point that defines the DFS apex. Rivers may incise downstream of the basin margin valley because of changes in sediment
supply and discharge through climatic variability or tectonic processes. We demonstrate that rivers on DFS commonly decrease in width down-DFS caused by infiltration, bifurcation, and evaporation. In proximal areas, channel
sands are amalgamated through repeated avulsion, reoccupation of previous channel belts, and limited accumulation space. When rivers flood on the medial to distal portions of a DFS, the floodwaters spread across a large area on
the DFS surface and typically do not re-enter the main channel. In these distal areas, rivers on DFS commonly avulse, leaving a discrete sand body and providing high preservation potential for floodplain deposits.
Additional work is needed to evaluate the geomorphic character of modern sedimentary basins in order to construct improved facies models for the continental sedimentary rock record. Specifically, models for avulsion,
bifurcation, infiltration, and geomorphic form on DFS are required to better define and subsequently predict facies geometries. Studies of fluvial systems in sedimentary basins are also important for evaluating flood patterns and groundwater distributions for populations in these regions
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-219
Number of pages33
Early online date12 Sep 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015


  • distributive fluvial systems
  • sedimentary basins
  • tributary fluvial systems
  • fans


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