Large Distributive Fluvial Systems: Characteristics, Distribution, and Controls on Development

Adrian John Hartley, Gary Weissmann, Gary J. Nichols, Gail L. Warwick

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293 Citations (Scopus)


An analysis of remotely sensed imagery reveals that fluvial planform geometries within aggrading continental areas are dominated by distributive fluvial systems (DFSs). We documented the gradient, length, apex location, planform, termination type, and tectonic and climatic setting of 415 examples of fluvial systems which in planform display a radial, distributive channel pattern and have an apex-toe distance > 30 km (large DFSs). The longest of these DFSs is 704 km in length, with the majority (72%) ranging between 30 and 100 km in length. Gradients on individual systems range from 0.00003 (0.0018 degrees) to 0.02656 (1.5 degrees). Six planform types are recognized, those with: (1) a single braided channel that bifurcates downstream into braided and/or straight channels, (2) a single dominant braided channel, (3) a single dominant braided channel which becomes sinuous downstream often bifurcating, (4) a single dominant sinuous channel, (5) a single sinuous channel that bifurcates downstream into smaller sinuous channels, and (6) multiple sinuous channels. Of the studied examples 58% occur within exorheic basins and 42% in endorheic basins, with seven different termination types recognized. In many examples, channel planform changes downstream from a distributive pattern to a contributory pattern. In others, channels terminate at an axial fluvial system, at the coast, in eolian dune fields, playa lakes, permanent lakes, or wetlands. Large DFSs and their catchments are developed in all climatic regimes, including drylands, tropical, subtropical, continental, and polar climates. Large DFSs occur in all tectonic settings, including extensional, compressional, strike-slip, and cratonic tectonic regimes.

General trends and relationships between the different studied parameters can be observed, leading to a broad understanding of the main controls on large DFS development. All of the planform types occur in all tectonic settings and all climate zones. Braided planforms dominate all tectonic settings, but particularly compressional regimes. High-gradient braided systems tend to be associated with areas of high relief and are well developed in dryland climates where discharge is inferred to be intermittent in comparison to tropical climates. Large DFSs with sinuous planforms do occur in dryland climates but tend to predominate in wetter, more tropical climates where discharge is more constant and the fluvial systems can distribute bedload more efficiently. Sinuous systems also tend to have significantly lower gradients than braided systems. Although these general observations can be made, there are significant variations from these trends, which are inferred to be controlled by variations in (1) discharge related to climate and (2) sediment supply, which is a function of climate, catchment size, catchment lithology, and catchment relief.

Large DFS length is controlled by the available horizontal accommodation space, which in turn is strongly related to tectonic setting. The longest DFSs occur in peripheral foreland basins and cratonic settings where lateral systems can develop across an extensive basinwards slope. Extensional, strike-slip, and piggy-back basins are narrower and have much more limited horizontal accommodation space. Consequently DFSs developed in these settings are shorter, with radii often less than 30 km. DFSs dominate in aggradational settings such as actively subsiding sedimentary basins and therefore form a significant proportion of alluvial sedimentary successions preserved in the rock record.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-183
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Sedimentary Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2010


  • gangetic plains
  • Northern Pakistan
  • alluvial fans
  • river systems
  • thrust belt
  • basin
  • megafans
  • deposits
  • India
  • classification


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