Fluvial deposits offer Earth’s best‐preserved geomorphic record of past climate change over geological timescales. However, quantitatively extracting this information remains challenging in part due to the complexity of erosion, sediment transport and deposition processes and how each of them responds to climate. Furthermore, sedimentary basins have the potential to temporarily store sediments, and rivers subsequently rework those sediments. This may introduce time lags into sedimentary signals and obscure any direct correlation with climate forcing. Here, using a numerical model that combines all three processes—and a new analytical solution—we show that the thickness of fluvial deposits at the outlet of a mountain river can be linked to the amplitude and period of rainfall oscillations but is modulated by the mountain uplift rate. For typical uplift rates of a few mm/yr, climate oscillations at Milankovitch periods lead to alluvial sediment thickness of tens of meters as observed in nature. We also explain the time lag of the order of 20%–25% of the forcing period that is commonly observed between the timing of maximum rainfall and erosion. By comparing to field datasets, our predictions for the thickness and time lag of fluvial deposits are broadly consistent with observations despite the simplicity of our modeling approach. These findings provide a new theoretical framework for quantitatively extracting information on past rainfall variations from fluvial deposits.
Plain Language Summary:
Climate influences the evolution of terrestrial landscapes through the amount of precipitation, which provides water to erode rocks and transport sediment in rivers. At the outlets of mountain ranges, rivers can deposit part of their sediment load; the shape of the deposits is influenced by the amount of flow in the rivers. If the climate changes such that the precipitation rate increases, rivers can cut into their own previous deposits. The remaining deposits are then abandoned above the riverbed. On the contrary, if precipitation decreases, rivers tend to deposit more sediment, leading to increases in the thickness of sediments at the outlets of mountain rivers. Thus, there is a relationship between the amount of precipitations and the thickness of sediments deposited at river outlets. We study this with a computer model that allows us to relate the variations in precipitation rates to variations in thickness of fluvial terrace deposits. This work can be used to better understand how rivers respond to climatic changes, and also to reconstruct climatic variations of the past from observed river deposits.
We use a numerical model and a new analytical solution to quantify a physical link between fluvial deposits and climate oscillations.
Our method provides a theoretical framework for extracting information on past climate variations from fluvial terrace deposits.
Our results explain time lag of 20%–25% of forcing period commonly observed between the timing of maximum rainfall and erosion.
Marie Sklodowska‐Curie grant