Transformation of tectonic and climatic signals from source to sedimentary archive

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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The Earth’s sedimentary successions are an archive of past tectonic and climate events1, 2. The physical characteristics of the sediment record are controlled by three main factors: the sediment supply from the eroding source region, the grain size distribution of that sediment supply, and the area available for sediment accumulation in the downstream regions3, 4. The interplay of these factors can make the interpretation of a climatic or tectonic signal complex, particularly as these processes are nonlinear. Here we assess the evolution of a tectonically active landscape undergoing erosional and depositional processes, using a numerical model that incorporates variations in grain size and the volumetric sediment budget. Our simulations indicate that changes in precipitation and tectonic uplift both generate characteristic patterns of grain size and stratigraphic geometry. An increase in catchment precipitation results in the deposition of a laterally extensive sheet of coarse gravel. The responses to a changing tectonic regime are more diverse: a large increase in uplift rate results first in the deposition of sediments of larger grain size at proximal sites, followed by a reduction in grain size at distal locations. We conclude that the stratigraphic record is strongly controlled by the grain size of sediments released from catchments undergoing tectonic or climatic change.

At a glance


  1. Diagram of model domain.
    Figure 1: Diagram of model domain.

    The uplifting catchment (green) is bounded by a vertical normal fault. The fault marks the transition from catchment to fan (yellow). In this idealized model domain, we maintain a continuity of slope and elevation across the apex15, 29.

  2. Response of the sedimentary system to climate and tectonic perturbations.
    Figure 2: Response of the sedimentary system to climate and tectonic perturbations.

    a, Sediment flux from catchment for a twofold increase (solid line) and decrease (dashed line) in precipitation. b,c, Grain size distribution (GSD) within fan for models in a. Solid line shows 20mm grain size; dashes indicate 1Myr intervals; insets show vertical grain size profiles 5km from apex. dD50 released from catchment if a twofold precipitation increase is coupled to exported sediment grain size. e, Fan GSD for model d. f, Sediment flux from catchment for a twofold increase (solid line) and decrease (dashed line) in uplift. g,h, Fan GSD for models in f. iD84 released from catchment if uplift increase drives coarse sediment export. j, Fan GSD for model i. Initial conditions: precipitation, 1m2yr−1; uplift rate, 1mmyr−1; D50, 40mm; D84, 70mm.

  3. Predicted response to a fivefold increase in uplift within the Gole di Celano and the Fucino basin system.
    Figure 3: Predicted response to a fivefold increase in uplift within the Gole di Celano and the Fucino basin system.

    a, Normalized Wolman point count grain size measurements from the Gole di Celano for regions that are responding (transient) to a slip rate increase from 0.3 to 1.5mmyr−1 and those that have yet to respond (steady state)19. The grain size has been converted to a log10 scale so that the two distributions are Gaussian. b, Response of input grain size (D50 and D84) due to the change in slip rate. c, Grain size distribution for a ×5 increase in slip rate. Inset: Vertical grain size profiles. Small arrows mark the slip rate perturbation recorded within the granulometry.

  4. Down-system grain size signals following a doubling of subsidence and uplift from 1[thinsp]mm[thinsp]yr-1 to 2[thinsp]mm[thinsp]yr-1.
    Figure 4: Down-system grain size signals following a doubling of subsidence and uplift from 1mmyr−1 to 2mmyr−1.

    a, Input sediment distributions: dotted line— D50, red to black lines— D84 of peak of 40–100mm. b,c, Mean grain size deposited plotted in vertical sediment columns 1 and 7km from the fan apex. Red to black lines are as in a and represent the variation in input D84. d, Input sediment distributions: dashed line— D84, blue to black lines D50 of a peak of 20–70mm. e,f, Mean grain size deposited in vertical sediment columns 1 and 7km from the fan apex. Blue to black lines are as in d and represent the variation in input D50.


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  1. Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, South Kensington, London, SW7 2AZ, UK

    • John J. Armitage,
    • Robert A. Duller,
    • Alex C. Whittaker &
    • Philip A. Allen


J.J.A. designed and carried out the numerical experiments. All authors contributed equally to the analysis of the results and writing of the manuscript.

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