Fluvial Fans: Myths, Misconceptions, and the End of the Terminal-Fan Model

Colin P. North, Gail L. Warwick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


We propose that the so-called "terminal fan" facies model should be abandoned since it is flawed on several counts and it is leading to misunderstanding and poor communication. Rivers in drylands may experience excessive downstream discharge reduction such that they terminate subaerially rather than reach the sea or a lake. The facies model predicts that the distal reaches of such rivers form a network of bifurcating distributary channels producing a fan-shaped sediment body, with downstream thinning and fining of sedimentary units, ending in sand-filled ribbons encased in mud.

Extensive review of modern rivers has failed to turn up convincing examples that fit the model. Rivers in drylands do not ubiquitously end in fans. Fan-shaped fluvial bodies are common wherever rivers are released from confinement and the discharge conditions promote frequent avulsion. Channels on such fans generally do not repeatedly bifurcate downstream. Where they are seen to do so, it can usually be shown they are lacustrine deltas inherited from wetter times. The term "distributary" is being used carelessly and is conveying incorrect understanding of sediment geometry and architecture. The proposed synonym of "fluvial distributary systems" is unsatisfactory as it perpetuates the same misunderstandings. Reliance on planform alone in analogue selection is highly risky.

The fluvial fan is a composite sediment body resulting from frequent nodal avulsions in a setting without horizontal constraints. Channels on fans range in planform as much as any other river. The resultant sedimentary record differs little from that expected from non-fan fluvial systems except having a regionally radiating orientation when viewed over geological time scales. Contrary to the implications of the facies model, there is no distinctive "terminal fan" sedimentary succession.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)693-701
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Sedimentary Research
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2007


  • arid Central Australia
  • Northern plains
  • Okavango fan
  • river
  • systems
  • deposits
  • architecture
  • facies
  • classification
  • sequences


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