Predicting sediment flux from fold and thrust belts



The rate of sediment influx to a basin exerts a first-order control on stratal architecture. Despite its importance, however, little is known about how sediment flux varies as a function of morphotectonic processes in the source terrain, such as fold and thrust growth, variations in bedrock lithology, drainage pattern changes and temporary sediment storage in intermontane basins. In this study, these factors are explored with a mathematical model of topographic evolution which couples fluvial erosion with fold and thrust kinematics. The model is calibrated by comparing predicted topographic relief with relief measured from a DEM of the Central Zagros Mountains fold belt. The sediment-flux curve produced by the Zagros fold belt simulation shows a delay between the onset of uplift and the ensuing sediment flux response. This delay is a combination of the natural response time of the geomorphic system and a time lag associated with filling, and then subsequently uplifting and re-eroding, the proximal part of the basin. Because deformation typically propagates toward the foreland, the latter time lag may be common to many ancient foreland basins. Model results further suggest that the response time of the bedrock fluvial system is a function of rock resistance, of the width of the region subject to uplift and erosion, and, assuming a nonlinear dependence of fluvial erosion upon channel gradient, of uplift rate. The geomorphic response time for the calibrated Zagros model is on the order of a few million years, which is commensurate with, or somewhat larger than, typical recurrence intervals for episodes of thrusting. However, model experiments also highlight the potential for significant variations in both geomorphic response time and in sediment flux as a function of varying rock resistance. Given a reasonable erodibility contrast between resistant and erodible lithologies, model sediment flux curves show significant sediment flux variations that are related solely to changes in rock resistance as the outcrop pattern changes. An additional control on sediment flux to a basin is drainage diversion in response to folding or thrusting, which can produce major shifts in the location and magnitude of sediment source points. Finally, these models illustrate the potential for a significant mismatch between tectonic events and sediment influx to a basin in cases where sediment is temporarily ponded in an intermontane basin and later remobilized.