Constraining the depositional gradient of ancient alluvial river systems can aid in reconstructing landscapes and estimating paleodischarge by establishing boundaries on the climatic and tectonic history of continental sequences. We present three methods for estimating ancient depositional gradients based on the interpreted mode of sediment transport for the range of particle sizes found on the beds of modern rivers or preserved in channel fills. For sandy rivers with suspension as the dominant mode of sediment transport, these methods take advantage of observations that can be directly obtained from preserved strata, including measurements of paleo flow depth and grain size. The first method relates river slope to Shields number at bankfull flow. The second method is similar to the first but allows for variation in Shields number at bankfull flow with grain diameter. The final method relies on criteria required for both suspended- and bed-material load sediment transport in the same system and is the most comprehensive and physically justified method. We present each method and test them with modern river datasets to verify accuracy and help constrain uncertainty—the first step to adapting them to ancient systems. Results indicate that all methods estimate slope within a factor of two. These methods are potentially very powerful for interpreting sandy fluvial deposits because they can provide reasonably accurate quantitative estimates of paleoslope, an elusive yet important environmental variable.

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