• Fluvial;
  • palaeosols;
  • Pleistocene;
  • Rio Grande rift


Numerical, experimental and theoretical models of fluvial architecture and palaeosol development are tested with outcrops of Upper Pliocene-Lower Pleistocene sediment in the southern Rio Grande rift, New Mexico. The sediment was deposited and subsequently exhumed in the Jornada del Muerto basin, a westward-tilted half graben whose footwall corresponds to the Rincon Hills and San Diego Mountain fault blocks. The axial river, the ancestral Rio Grande, shared time between the Jornada del Muerto basin and the adjacent Corralitos basin. The ancestral Rio Grande entered the Jornada del Muerto basin via a gap between the footwall blocks, periodically flowing southward towards San Diego Mountain, or making a broad northward sweep into the northern fluvial salient towards the Rincon Hills fault block and unfaulted northern edge of the basin. Ten logged sections up to 35 m thick are correlated using the top of the formation (La Mesa surface), a 1·59 Ma pumice conglomerate, and a ground-water carbonate/opal bed. Additionally, one of the sections is dated by reversal magnetostratigraphy. Consistent with the model of Bridge & Leeder (1979) and Bridge & Mackey (1993a), differential tilting of the Jornada del Muerto half graben resulted in sections directly adjacent to the faults that consist almost exclusively of multistorey channel sands/sandstones, whereas more distal sections contain a greater proportion of crevasse-splay fine sand and overbank mudstone and calcic palaeosols. Along the axis of the northern fluvial salient, a northward decrease in channel/floodplain ratio, a decrease in channel recurrence interval from 171 kyr to 685 kyr, and an increase in the maturity of calcic palaeosols are consistent with southward tilt of the unfaulted northern edge of the basin. An upsection decrease in sediment accumulation rate in the northern fluvial salient from 0·036 mm/ yr to 0·017 mm/ yr corresponds to an increase in the ratio of channel/floodplain facies and in the number of multistorey channel sands/sandstones, and is consistent with the model of Bridge & Leeder (1979) in which avulsion frequency is independent of sediment accumulation rate. Stage II and III calcic palaeosols indicate 103−105 year of landscape stability and soil formation between periods of floodplain deposition in response not only to basin tilting but also because the ancestral Rio Grande had multiple paths within the Jornada del Muerto basin and shared time between the Corralitos and Jornada del Muerto basins.