Rivers turned to rock: Late Quaternary alluvial induration influencing the behaviour and morphology of an anabranching river in the Australian monsoon tropics

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C. Nanson, Gerald
G. Jones, Brian
M. Price, David
J. Pietsch, Timothy
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Late Quaternary alluvial induration has greatly influenced contemporary channel morphology on the anabranching Gilbert River in the monsoon tropics of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Gilbert, one of a number of rivers in this region, has contributed to an extensive system of coalescing low-gradient and partly indurated riverine plains. Extensive channel sands were deposited by enhanced flow conditions during marine oxygen isotope (OI) Stage 5. Subsequent flow declined, probably associated with increased aridity, however, enhanced runoff recurred again in OI Stages 4-3 (65-50 ka). Aridity then capped these plains with 4-7 m of mud. A widespread network of sandy distributary channels was incised into this muddy surface from sometime after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) to the mid Holocene during a fluvial episode more active than the present but less so than those of OI Stages 5 and 3. This network is still partly active but with channel avulsion and abandonment now occurring largely proximal to the main Gilbert flow path. A tropical climate and reactive catchment lithology have enhanced chemical weathering and lithification of alluvium along the river resulting in the formation of small rapids, waterfalls and inset gorges, features characteristic more of bedrock than alluvial systems. Thermoluminescence (TL) and comparative optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages of the sediments are presented along with U/Th ages of pedogenic calcrete and Fe/Mn oxyhydroxide/ oxide accumulations. They show that calcrete precipitated during the Late Quaternary at times similar to those that favoured ferricrete formation, possibly because of an alternating wet-dry climate. Intense chemical alteration of the alluvium leading to induration appears to have prevailed for much of the Late Quaternary but, probably due to exceptional dryness, not during the LGM. The result has been restricted channel migration and a reduced capacity for the channel to adjust and accommodate sudden changes in bedload. Consequent avulsions have caused local stream powers to increase by an order of magnitude, inducing knickpoint erosion, local incision and the sudden influx of additional bedload that has triggered further avulsions. The Gilbert River, while less energetic than its Pleistocene ancestors, is clearly an avulsive system, and emphasizes the importance in some tropical rivers of alluvial induration for reinforcing the banks, generating nickpoints, reworking sediment and thereby developing and maintaining an indurated and anabranching river style.

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