Unit-bar deposits are ubiquitous components of river-channel deposits and strongly influence their hydrological properties, yet they are not easy to interpret. This paper concerns details of the internal structures of six unit bars from the South Saskatchewan River, Canada, that were investigated using trenches, epoxy resin peels, and 900 MHz ground-penetrating radar (GPR) profiles. The composition of unit bars depends on flow unsteadiness and superimposed bedforms. Flow unsteadiness causes changes in the mean grain size of the sediment in transport, but is expressed primarily as a change in the type and direction of migration of smaller ripple- and dune-scale bedforms superimposed on unit bars. Superimposed bedforms with heights that exceed 25% of the host bedform height reduce their host's slope and generate inclined sets. Host bedforms with smaller superimposed bedforms form angle-of-repose cross strata with a visible pre-sorting pattern. The relationship between the formative host- and superimposed bedforms and such pre-sorted cross strata can be used to interpret numerous aspects of the three-dimensional geometries of the bedforms. Such detailed interpretations rely on: (i) regularly spaced fine-grained drapes deposited during the passage of troughs of superimposed bedforms, (ii) grain-size sorting patterns generated by sorting within the superimposed bedforms before deposition, (iii) grain-size sorting during deposition by grainfall and intermittent grainflows down the bar lee-slope, and (iv) the presence and nature of low-angle reactivation surfaces.
The detailed interpretations revealed that the deposits of dam-related floods were significantly smaller than the deposits of individual unit bars in this study. The unsteady flow and sediment transport conditions are reflected by changes in the structural composition of the unit bars. Reactivation surfaces associated with flow unsteadiness, as opposed to those formed by large superimposed bedforms, were characterized by changes in mean grain size, the buildup of sediment at the base of the bar lee slope, and changes in structures formed by superimposed bedforms. Reactivation surfaces generated by large superimposed bedforms indicate that bedform preservation is likely increased in areas of flow deceleration. The trough deposits of exposed unit bars contained bubble sand, planar laminae due to upper-stage plane beds, and low-angle inclined laminae due to antidunes. These structures indicate that unit-bar troughs can act as ephemeral channels. The composition of the investigated unit bars thus emphasizes the interplay between flow unsteadiness and bed morphology in the formation of sedimentary structures in river channels.
Sediment surfaces generate visible GPR reflections where the thickness and contrast in electrical properties of the sediment layers are sufficiently large. Most cross-stratified sets were represented only by reflections from the base of the set, and not by high-angle inclined reflections from the cross strata. The local absence of reflections from cross strata is attributed to the lack of contrast in electrical properties of the well-sorted cross strata and their limited thickness relative to the radar wavelength. In contrast to cross strata, reactivation surfaces formed by large superimposed bedforms and flow unsteadiness were commonly associated with distinct inclined reflections.