The problem of paleo-planforms

Sinéad J. Lyster, Alexander C. Whittaker, Elizabeth A. Hajek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Reconstructing river planform is crucial to understanding ancient fluvial systems on Earth and other planets. Paleo-planform is typically interpreted from qualitative facies interpretations of fluvial strata, but these can be inconsistent with quantitative approaches. We tested three well-known hydraulic planform predictors in Cretaceous fluvial strata (in Utah, USA) where there is a facies-derived consensus on paleo-planform. However, the results of each predictor are inconsistent with facies interpretations and with each other. We found that one of these predictors is analytically best suited for geologic application but favors single-thread planforms. Given that this predictor was originally tested using just 53 data points from natural rivers, we compiled a new data set of hydraulic geometries in natural rivers (n = 1688), which spanned >550 globally widespread, sand and gravel-bed rivers from various climate and vegetative regimes. We found that the existing criteria misclassified 65% of multithread rivers in our data set, but modification resulted in a useful predictor. We show that depth/width (H/W) ratio alone is sufficient to discriminate between single-thread (H/W > 0.02) and multithread (H/W < 0.02) rivers, suggesting bank cohesion may be a critical determinant of planform. Further, we show that the slope/Froude (S/Fr) ratio is useful to discriminate process in multithread rivers; i.e., whether generation of new threads is an avulsion-dominated (anastomosing) or bifurcationdominated (braided) process. Multithread rivers are likely to be anastomosing when S/Fr < 0.003 (shallower slopes) and braided when S/Fr > 0.003 (steeper slopes). Our criteria successfully discriminate planform in modern rivers and our geologic examples, and they offer an effective approach to predict planform in the geologic past on Earth and on other planets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)822-826
Number of pages5
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geology


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