A numerical modelling and experimental study of flow width dynamics on alluvial fans



Alluvial fans are dynamic landforms, the evolution of which is controlled by both external environmental forcing (climate, tectonics and base level change) and internal process-form feedbacks. The latter include changes in flow configuration (between sheetflow and channelized flow states), driven by aggradation and degradation, which may in turn promote changes in sediment transport capacity. Recent numerical modelling indicates that such feedbacks may lead to dramatic and persistent fan entrenchment in the absence of external forcing. However, the parameterization of flow width within such models is untested to date and is subject to considerable uncertainty. This paper presents results from an experimental study of flow width dynamics on an aggrading fan in which spatial and temporal patterns of fan inundation are monitored continuously using analysis of digital vertical photography. Observed flow widths are compared with results from a simple theoretical model developed for non-equilibrium (aggradational) conditions. Results demonstrate that the theoretical model is capable of capturing the first-order characteristics of width adjustment over the course of the experiment, and indicate that flow width is a function of fan aggradation rate. This illustrates that models of alluvial flow width derived for equilibrium conditions may have limited utility in non-equilibrium situations, despite their widespread use to date. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.