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Fluvial responses to climate and sea-level change: a review and look forward


NE 68588-0340, USA (E-mail:
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago,
845 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607-7059, USA (E-mail:


Fluvial landforms and deposits provide one of the most readily studied Quaternary continental records, and alluvial strata represent an important component in most ancient continental interior and continental margin successions. Moreover, studies of the long-term dynamics of fluvial systems and their responses to external or ‘allogenic' controls, can play important roles in research concerning both global change and sequence-stratigraphy, as well as in studies of the dynamic interactions between tectonic activity and surface processes. These themes were energized in the final decades of the twentieth century, and may become increasingly important in the first decades of this millennium.

This review paper provides a historical perspective on the development of ideas in the fields of geomorphology/Quaternary geology vs. sedimentary geology, and then summarizes key processes that operate to produce alluvial stratigraphic records over time-scales of 103−106 years. Of particular interest are changes in discharge regimes, sediment supply and sediment storage en route from source terrains to sedimentary basins, as well as changes in sea-level and the concept of accommodation. Late Quaternary stratigraphic records from the Loire (France), Mississippi (USA), Colorado (Texas, USA) and Rhine–Meuse (The Netherlands) Rivers are used to illustrate the influences of climate change on continental interior rivers, as well as the influence of interacting climate and sea-level change on continental margin systems.

The paper concludes with a look forward to a bright future for studies of fluvial response to climate and sea-level change. At present, empirical field-based research on fluvial response to climate and sea-level change lags behind: (a) the global change community's understanding of the magnitude and frequency of climate and sea-level change; (b) the sequence-stratigraphic community's desire to interpret climate and, especially, sea-level change as forcing mechanisms; and (c) the modelling community's ability to generate numerical and physical models of surface processes and their stratigraphic results. A major challenge for the future is to catch up, which will require the development of more detailed and sophisticated Quaternary stratigraphic, sedimentological and geochronological frameworks in a variety of continental interior and continental margin settings. There is a particular need for studies that seek to document fluvial responses to allogenic forcing over both shorter (102−103 years) and longer (104−106 years) time-scales than has commonly been the case to date, as well as in larger river systems, from source to sink. Studies of Quaternary systems in depositional basin settings are especially critical because they can provide realistic analogues for interpretation of the pre-Quaternary rock record.