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In sedimentary geology and fluvial geomorphology, avulsion is the rapid abandonment of a river channel and the formation of a new river channel. Avulsions occur as a result of channel slopes that are much lower than the slope that the river could travel if it took a new course. [1]


Deltaic and net-depositional settings

Plumes of sediment enter the ocean from mouths of the Mississippi River bird's-foot delta. This sediment is responsible for building the delta and allowing it to advance into the sea.

Avulsions are common in deltaic settings, where sediment deposits as the river enters the ocean and channel gradients are typically very small[2]. This process of avulsion in deltaic settings is also known as delta switching.

Deposition from the river results in the formation of an individual deltaic lobe that pushes out into the sea. An example of a deltaic lobe is the bird's-foot delta of the Mississippi River, pictured at right with its sediment plumes. As the deltaic lobe advances, the slope of the river channel becomes lower because the river channel is longer but has the same change in elevation (see slope or gradient). As the slope of the river channel decreases, it becomes unstable for two reasons. First, water under the force of gravity will tend to flow in the most direct course downslope. If the river could breach its natural levees (i.e., during a flood), it would spill out onto a new course with a shorter route to the ocean, thereby obtaining a more stable steeper slope.[1] Second, as its slope gets lower, the amount of shear stress on the bed will decrease, which will result in deposition of sediment within the channel and for the channel bed to rise relative to the floodplain. This will make it easier to breach its levees and cut a new channel that enters the ocean at a steeper slope.

When this avulsion occurs, the new channel carries sediment out to the ocean, building a new deltaic lobe.[3],[4] The abandoned delta eventually subsides.[5] Because this process results in the formation of a series of lobes, it is also known as delta switching.

This process is also related to the distributary network of river channels that can be observed within a river delta. When the channel does this, some of its flow can remain in the abandoned channel. When these channel switching events happen repeatedly over time, a mature delta will gain a distributary network.[6]

Subsidence of the delta and/or sea-level rise can further cause backwater and deposition in the delta. This deposition fills the channels and leaves a geologic record of channel avulsion in sedimentary basins. On average, an avulsion will occur every time the bed of a river channel aggrades enough that the river channel is superelevated above the floodplain by one channel-depth. In this situation, enough hydraulic head is available that any breach of the natural levees will result in an avulsion. [7] [8]

Meander cutoffs

An example of a minor avulsion is known as a meander cutoff, where the high-sinuosity meander bend is abandoned in favor of the high-slope. Slingerland and Smith show that this occurs when the ratio between the channel slope and the potential slope after an avulsion is less than 1/6.[1]

Avulsion typically occurs during large floods which carry the power necessary to rapidly change the landscape.

Avulsions usually occur as a downstream to upstream process via head cutting erosion. If a bank of a current stream is breached a new trench will be cut into the existing floodplain. It either cuts through floodplain deposits or reoccupies an old channel. [9]

In this link small avulsions can be seen breaking from the main channel in a delta created in a lab at Western Washington University. This is a time lapse image of the delta. [1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Slingerland, R. and N. D. Smith (1998), Necessary conditions for a meandering-river avulsion, Geology (Boulder), 26, 435–438.
  2. ^ Marshak, Stephen (2001), Earth: Portrait of a Planet, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-97423-5 pp. 528–9
  3. ^ Stanley, Steven M. (1999) Earth System History. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, ISBN 0-7167-2882-6 p. 136
  4. ^ Marshak, pp. 528–9
  5. ^ Stanley, p. 136
  6. ^ Easterbrook, Don J.Surface Processes and Landforms Second EditionPrentice Hall, New Jersey: 1999.
  7. ^ Bryant, M., P. Falk, and C. Paola (1995), Experimental study of avulsion frequency and rate of deposition, Geology (Boulder), 23, 365–368.
  8. ^ Mohrig, D., P. L. Heller, C. Paola, and W. J. Lyons (2000), Interpreting avulsion process from ancient alluvial sequences; Guadalope-Matarranya system (northern Spain) and Wasatch Formation (western Colorado), Geological Society of America Bulletin, 112, 1787–1803.
  9. ^ Nanson, G.C., and Knighton, A.D. 1996. Abranching rivers: Their cause, character, and classification. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 21:217–39


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