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Keywords:

  • floodplain;
  • Fly River;
  • depositional web

[1] Floodplain deposition on lowland meandering rivers is usually interpreted as either lateral accretion during channel migration or overbank deposition. Previous studies on the Fly River in Papua New Guinea suggest, however, that floodplain channels (consisting of tie channel and tributary channels) play an important role in conveying sediment out across the floodplain. Here we report the results of an intensive field study conducted from 1990 to 1998 that documents the discharge of main stem water from the Fly River onto its floodplain and maps the spatial pattern of sediment deposition on the floodplain (using as a tracer elevated particulate copper introduced into the system by upstream mining). An extensive network of water level recorders demonstrates significant hydraulic heads from the main stem out the floodplain channels. For the monitoring period 1995–1998, net water discharge into the floodplain channels was about 20% of the flow. Another 20% is estimated to spill overbank from the main stem in wet years. Annual floodplain coring from 1990 to 1994 obtained over 800 samples across the 3500 km2 Middle Fly floodplain for use in documenting temporal and spatial patterns of sediment deposition. Early samples record the rapid spread of sediment up to 10 km away from the main stem via floodplain channels. Later, more intensive coring samples documented a well-defined exponential decline in sediment deposition from the nearest channel (which differed little between floodplain and main stem channels). Deposition, averaging about 6–9 mm/a, occurred in a 1 km corridor either side of these channels and effectively ceased beyond that distance. About 40% of the total sediment load was deposited on the floodplain, with half of that being conveyed by the over 900 km of floodplain channels (equal to about 0.09% sediment deposition/km of main stem channel length). Levee topographies along the main stem and floodplain channels are similar but cannot be explained by the observed exponential functions. Channel margin shear flow during extended periods of flooding may give rise to the localized levee deposition. Our study demonstrates that tie and tributary floodplain channels can inject large volumes of sediment-laden main stem waters great distances across the floodplain where they spill overbank, forming a narrow band of deposition, thereby creating a depositional web.