Departmental Papers (EES)

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version


Publication Source

Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface





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River deltas and alluvial fans have channelization and deposition dynamics that are not entirely understood, but which dictate the evolution of landscapes of great social, economic, and ecologic value. Our lack of a process-based understanding of fan dynamics hampers our ability to construct accurate prediction and hazard models, leaving these regions vulnerable. Here we describe the growth of a series of experimental alluvial fans composed of a noncohesive grain mixture bimodal in size and density. We impose conditions that simulate a gravel/sand fan prograding into a static basin with constant water and sediment influx, and the resulting fans display realistic channelization and avulsion dynamics. We find that we can describe the dynamics of our fans in terms of a few processes: (1) an avulsion sequence with a timescale dictated by mass conservation between incoming flux and deposit volume; (2) a tendency for flow to reoccupy former channel paths; and (3) bistable slopes corresponding to separate entrainment and deposition conditions for grains. Several important observations related to these processes are: an avulsion timescale that increases with time and decreases with sediment feed rate; fan lobes that grow in a self-similar, quasi-radial pattern; and channel geometry that is adjusted to the threshold entrainment stress. We propose that the formation of well-defined channels in noncohesive fans is a transient phenomenon resulting from incision following avulsion, and can be directly described with dual transport thresholds. We present a fairly complete, process-based description of the mechanics of avulsion and its resulting timescale on our fans. Because the relevant dynamics depend only on threshold transport conditions and conservation of mass, we show how results may be directly applied to field-scale systems.

Copyright/Permission Statement

Copyright © 2012 by the American Geophysical Union.


alluvial fan, avalanche, avulsion, canal paradox, floodplain, self-organization



Date Posted: 11 November 2016

This document has been peer reviewed.