Contrasting morphodynamics in alluvial fans and fan deltas: effect of the downstream boundary



Alluvial fans and fan deltas can, in principle, have exactly the same upstream conditions, but fan deltas by definition have ponding water at their downstream boundary. This ponding creates effects on the autogenic behaviour of fan deltas, such as backwater adaptation, mouth bars and backward sedimentation, whereas alluvial fans may lack these effects. Hence the present authors hypothesize that morphodynamics on alluvial fans are determined primarily by upstream boundary conditions, whereas morphodynamics on fan deltas are determined by both the upstream and the downstream boundary condition and changes therein. To isolate the effects of the upstream and downstream boundaries, five new alluvial fan experiments are compared with the details of three fan deltas published earlier that were formed under very similar and simple conditions. Similar to the fan deltas, the alluvial fans build up by sheet flow, whilst quasi-regular periods of incision cause temporary channelized flow. Incision is followed by channel backfilling, after which the fan returns to sheet flow. The channelization and backfilling in alluvial fans is markedly less pronounced and more prone to autogenic disturbance than in fan deltas. The difference is caused by morphodynamics at the downstream boundary. In a fan delta, the flow expansion of the channel causes deposition of all the sediment, which forms a mouth bar and causes strong backfilling. In an alluvial fan, on the other hand, the slope break at the fan perimeter causes some deposition, but transport is not reduced to zero. Consequently, the backfilling in alluvial fans is less pronounced than in fan deltas. Other published experiments support this trend: removal of the mouth bar by a river leads to permanent channelization, whilst pronounced mouth-bar formation in highly channelized deltas promotes backward sedimentation. The experimental results for this study predict that, when alluvial fans prograde into lakes or deep rivers, they transition to fan deltas with increasingly deeper channels and thicker backfill deposits.