Paleohydraulic analysis of an ancient distributive fluvial system

Adrian J. Hartley, Amanda Owen

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Reconstructing the paleohydraulics of ancient fluvial systems has important implications when determining channel-body dimensions in the subsurface as well as aiding source-to-sink studies and quantitatively determining the impact of changing climatic conditions. We undertake a paleohydraulic analysis of the Upper Jurassic Salt Wash distributive fluvial system (DFS) of the Morrison Formation, SW USA, to determine if downstream trends such as decreasing channel size and discharge, inferred in studies of DFS, are present. Channel depth was estimated using cross-set height values and preserved bar thickness. Nine localities across the exposed part of the Salt Wash system were studied. In total, 49 bars were measured, full bar thickness was determined from 12 complete bars, and average cross-set height was calculated for 37 bars. Estimates of maximum bankfull channel depth were derived from measured bar thicknesses. Bar height was then obtained and converted to mean bankfull channel depth using a shape adjustment factor of 0.65. The bar-derived mean bankfull channel depths were then used to derive a factor for which dune cross-set heights could be converted to mean bankfull channel depth (4.6) and maximum bankfull channel depth (7.1). These factors were then applied to localities where only cross-set height data were available, thus allowing consistent comparison and extrapolation of mean bankfull channel depth over the preserved DFS area. The use of measured bar thicknesses to calibrate estimates of mean channel depth from reconstructed dune heights is considered a useful approach, with the factor of 4.6 estimated here being lower than that (6 to 10) commonly used in comparable studies.The datasets for the Salt Wash DFS record systematic downstream trends in cross-set height, bar thickness, calculated channel depth, estimated channel width, and estimated Q, with variability and overlap between the proximal to medial, and medial to distal parts. The variability superimposed on the regional downstream trends is attributed to a combination of autocyclic processes such as variations in discharge, depth of scour, and avulsion as well as more regional-scale channel-belt switching together with allocyclic controls. The wide spatial distribution of the dataset in this study allows distinction between local autocyclic controls and regional downstream trends. Formative discharge shows no downstream trend across the entire Salt Wash DFS, with a wide range in coefficient of variation of preserved cross set thickness (CV(dst) values of 0.1 to 1.1) indicative of flashy (variable) discharge.The spatial distribution of the Salt Wash dataset allows extrapolation of trends upstream to the unexposed part of the system that allows insights into the characteristics of the channel system in the apex area (∼ 150 km to the southwest and removed by post depositional erosion). The fluvial system would have a mean depth of 9 m, and a bankfull-depth discharge of around 1450 m3/s with mean cross-set heights of between 50 and 70 cm. These estimates are in line with those from present-day DFSs in the Himalayan and Andean foreland basins that have a scale similar to that estimated for the Salt Wash system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445-459
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Sedimentary Research
Issue number5
Early online date20 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2022

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank AE Janok Bhattacharya and Journal reviewers John Holbrook and W. Lin for their insightful and helpful reviews.


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