Alluvial deposits of the Guadalope-Matarranya system (Oligocene, Ebro basin, Spain) and the Wasatch Formation (Eocene, western Colorado), provide time-integrated records of the process of river-channel avulsion. These sequences consist of isolated channel-belt sandstones incised into, and abruptly overlain by, flood-plain siltstones, indicating deposition by avulsive river systems. The geometry and distribution of channel incisions suggest that avulsion was not controlled by tectonics, climate, or base-level changes, but formed by autocyclic processes.
Measurements from 221 channel fills in the Guadalope-Matarranya system and 38 from the Wasatch Formation allow us to statistically characterize channel geometries we infer to be associated with establishment and abandonment of individual river avulsions. Paleoflow depths in both systems average 1.4 to 1.6 m. Aggradation height (superelevation) of channel margin levees are, on average, 0.6 and 1.1 times paleoflow depth in the Guadalope-Matarranya and Wasatch systems, respectively. These results are consistent with values from recently avulsed modern rivers and suggest that (1) flow depth is the appropriate parameter against which to scale the critical superelevation necessary for channel avulsion; and (2) the increase in potential energy due to channel perching drives the lateral instability that is needed for avulsion to be successful.
Numerous stacked channel fills indicate repeated reoccupation of the same site by avulsing channels. These reoccupation channels indicate that inherited flood-plain topography, here abandoned channel forms, was an important control on the arrival site of newly avulsed channels.
Comparison of our results to others suggests two end-member types of avulsion can take place. Incisional avulsion, seen here, is characterized by an early incision phase followed by infilling by migrating bar forms. Aggradational avulsion begins with aggradation followed in time by stream integration into a single downcutting channel. We suggest that the type of avulsion is strongly influenced by whether or not the adjacent flood plain is well or poorly drained. In both cases subsequent aggradation and channel perching increase the chances that some triggering event will lead to avulsion.