Rapid grain size coarsening at sandstone/conglomerate transition: similar expression in Himalayan modern rivers and Pliocene molasse deposits



Radical grain size changes between two main units of a sedimentary megacycle in a foreland basin are commonly interpreted to result from changes in tectonic activity or climate in the adjacent mountain range. In central Nepal, the Cenozoic Siwalik molasse deposits exposed in the frontal Himalayan folds are characterized by such a radical grain size transition. Locally gravel deposits completely replace sands in vertical succession over approximately a hundred metres, the median grain size (D50) displaying a sharp increase by a factor of ca. 100. Such a rapid gravel-sand transition (GST) is also observed in present-day river channels about 8–20 km downstream from the outlet of the Siwalik Range. The passage from gravel-bed channel reaches (proximal alluvial fans) to sand-bed channel reaches (distal alluvial fans) occurs within a few kilometres on the Gangetic Plain in central Nepal, and the D50 ratio between the two types of channels equals ca. 100. We propose that the dramatic and remarkably similar increase in grain size observed in the Neogene Siwalik series and along modern rivers in the Gangetic foreland basin, results from a similar hydraulic process, i.e. a grain sorting process during the selective deposition of the sediment load. The sudden appearance of gravels in the upper Siwalik series would be related to the crossing of this sorting transition during progressive southward migration of the gravel front, in response to continuous Himalayan orogen construction. And as a consequence, the GST would be diachronous by nature. This study demonstrates that an abrupt change in grain size does not necessarily relate to a change in tectonic or climatic forcing, but can simply arise from internal adjustment of the piedmont rivers to the deposition and run out of coarse bedload. It illustrates, in addition, the genesis of quartz-rich conglomerates in the Himalayan foreland through gravel selective deposition associated with differential weathering, abrasion processes and sediment recycling during thrust wedge advance and shortening of the foreland basin.