The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) was the most extreme example of an abrupt global warming event in the Cenozoic, and it is widely discussed as a past analog for contemporary climate change. Anomalous accumulation of terrigenous mud in marginal shelf environments and concentration of sand in terrestrial deposits during the PETM have both been inferred to represent an increase in fluvial sediment flux. A corresponding increase in water discharge or river slope would have been required to transport this additional sediment. However, in many locations, evidence for changes in fluvial slope is weak, and geochemical proxies and climate models indicate that while runoff variability may have increased, mean annual precipitation was unaffected or potentially decreased. Here, we explored whether changes in river morphodynamics under variable-discharge conditions could have contributed to increased fluvial sand concentration during the PETM. Using field observations, we reconstructed channel paleohydraulics, mobility, and avulsion behavior for the Wasatch Formation (Piceance Basin, Colorado, USA). Our data provide no evidence for changes in fluvial slope during the PETM, and thus no evidence for enhanced sediment discharge. However, our data do show evidence of increased fluvial bar reworking and advection of sediment to floodplains during channel avulsion, consistent with experimental studies of alluvial systems subjected to variable discharge. High discharge variability increases channel mobility and floodplain reworking, which retains coarse sediment while remobilizing and exporting fine sediment through the alluvial system. This mechanism can explain anomalous fine sediment accumulation on continental shelves without invoking sustained increases in fluvial sediment and water discharge.
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