Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Catastrophic flooding origin of shelf valley systems in the English Channel


Megaflood events involving sudden discharges of exceptionally large volumes of water are rare, but can significantly affect landscape evolution, continental-scale drainage patterns and climate change1. It has been proposed that a significant flood event eroded a network of large ancient valleys on the floor of the English Channel—the narrow seaway between England and France2,3,4. This hypothesis has remained untested through lack of direct evidence, and alternative non-catastrophist ideas have been entertained for valley formation5,6. Here we analyse a new regional bathymetric map of part of the English Channel derived from high-resolution sonar data, which shows the morphology of the valley in unprecedented detail. We observe a large bedrock-floored valley that contains a distinct assemblage of landforms, including streamlined islands and longitudinal erosional grooves, which are indicative of large-scale subaerial erosion by high-magnitude water discharges. Our observations support the megaflood model, in which breaching of a rock dam at the Dover Strait instigated catastrophic drainage of a large pro-glacial lake in the southern North Sea basin2. We suggest that megaflooding provides an explanation for the permanent isolation of Britain from mainland Europe during interglacial high-sea-level stands7, and consequently for patterns of early human colonisation of Britain together with the large-scale reorganization of palaeodrainage in northwest Europe4.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Location map and inferred distribution of palaeovalleys on the English Channel shelf.
Figure 2: Sonar bathymetry of the north-central English Channel shelf.
Figure 3: Details of geomorphology of the Northern Palaeovalley.
Figure 4: Bathymetry images showing tributary confluence morphology and post-flooding secondary drainages.


  1. Baker, V. R. The study of superfloods. Science 295, 2379–2380 (2002)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Smith, A. J. A catastrophic origin for the paleovalley system of the eastern English-Channel. Mar. Geol. 64, 65–75 (1985)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Roep, T. B., Holst, H., Vissers, R. L. M., Pagnier, H. & Postma, D. Deposits of southward-flowing, Pleistocene rivers in the Channel region, near Wissant, N.W. France. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 17, 289–308 (1975)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Gibbard, P. L. in Island Britain: a Quaternary Perspective (ed. Preece, R. C.) 15–26 (Geological Society Special Publication, London, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Destombes, J. P., Shephardthorn, E. R., Redding, J. H. & Morzadeckerfourn, M. T. Buried valley system in strait of Dover. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 279, 243–256 (1975)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Kellaway, G. A., Redding, J. H., Shephardthorn, E. R. & Destombes, J. P. The quaternary history of the English Channel. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 279, 189–218 (1975)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Preece, R. C. Island Britain: a Quaternary Perspective (Geological Society Special Publication, London, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Hamilton, D. & Smith, A. J. The origin and sedimentary history of the Hurd Deep, English Channel, with additional notes on other deeps in the western English Channel. Mem. Bur. Rech. Geol. Min. 79, 59–78 (1972)

    Google Scholar 

  9. Dingwall, R. G. Sub-bottom infilled channels in an area of eastern English-Channel. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 279, 233–241 (1975)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Auffret, J. P., Alduc, D., Larsonneur, C. & Smith, A. J. Maps of the paleovalleys and of the thickness of superficial sediments in the eastern English-Channel. Ann. Inst. Oceanogr. 56, 21–35 (1980)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hamblin, R. J. O. et al. United Kingdom Offshore Regional Report: the Geology of the English Channel (HMSO for the British Geological Survey, London, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  12. British. Geological Survey Wight. 1:250,000 (Solid Geology) map (British Geological Surveys, Edinburgh, 1995)

  13. Baker, V. R. & Nummedal, D. The Channeled Scabland; a Guide to the Geomorphology of the Columbia Basin, Washington (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington DC, 1978)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Baker, V. R. The Channels of Mars (Univ. Texas Press, Austin, Texas, 1982)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Komar, P. D. Shapes of streamlined islands on Earth and Mars — experiments and analyses of the minimum-drag form. Geology 11, 651–654 (1983)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Gibbard, P. L. The history of the great northwest European rivers during the past 3 million years. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 318, 559–602 (1988)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Ehlers, J. & Gibbard, P. L. Quaternary Glaciations—Extent and Chronology. Part I: Europe 251–270 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Meijer, T. & Preece, R. C. in Island Britain: a Quaternary Perspective (ed. Preece, R. C.) 89–110 (Geological Society Special Publication, London, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Keen, D. H. in Island Britain: a Quaternary Perspective (ed. Preece, R. C.) 63–74 (Geological Society Special Publication, London, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  20. O’Connor, J. E., Grant, G. E. & Costa, J. E. in Ancient Floods, Modern Hazards—Principles and Applications of Paleoflood Hydrology (ed. House, P.) 359–385 (American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Antoine, P. et al. The Pleistocene rivers of the English channel region. J. Quat. Sci. 18, 227–243 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Lericolais, G., Auffret, J. P. & Bourillet, J. F. The Quaternary Channel River: seismic stratigraphy of its palaeo-valleys and deeps. J. Quat. Sci. 18, 245–260 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Menot, G. et al. Early reactivation of European rivers during the last deglaciation. Science 313, 1623–1625 (2006)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. White, M. J. & Shreve, D. C. Island Britain–peninsula Britain: palaeogeography, colonisation and the lower palaeolithic settlement of the British Isles. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 66, 1–28 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Parfitt, S. A. et al. The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe. Nature 438, 1008–1012 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Ashton, N. & Lewis, S. Deserted Britain: declining populations in the British Late Middle Pleistocene. Antiquity 76, 388–396 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. White, M., Scott, B. & Ashton, N. The Early Middle Palaeolithic in Britain: archaeology, settlement history and human behaviour. J. Quat. Sci. 21, 525–541 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Sutcliffe, A. J. in Island Britain: a Quaternary Perspective (ed. Preece, R. C.) 127–140 (Geological Society Special Publication, London, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Barber, D. C. et al. Forcing of the cold event of 8,200 years ago by catastrophic drainage of Laurentide lakes. Nature 400, 344–348 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Broecker, W. Was the Younger Dryas triggered by a flood? Science 312, 1146–1148 (2006)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Manning, R. On the flow of water in open channels and pipes. Trans. Inst. Civ. Eng. Ir. 20, 161–207 (1891)

    Google Scholar 

  32. Chow, V. T. Open Channel Hydraulics (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1959)

    Google Scholar 

  33. O’Conner, J. E. & Baker, V. R. Magnitudes and implications of peak discharges from glacial Lake Missoula. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 104, 267–279 (1992)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  34. Baker, V. R. Paleohydrology and Sedimentology of Lake Missoula Flooding in Eastern Washington (Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado, 1973)

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references


The bathymetry surveys were funded by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency under the UK Civil Hydrography Programme; we thank J. Collins and R. Spillard for support. Data acquisition for Fig. 4b was funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund through English Heritage and by the Joint Research Equipment Initiative (HEFCE/HEFCW). We thank B. Coakley, A. Densmore, R. S. Anderson, P. A. Allen, C. Paola, S. Parfitt, R. Preece and N. Ashton for discussions, and V. Baker and P. Gibbard for their comments.

Author Contributions S.G. and J.S.C. analysed the bathymetry data and wrote the paper. G.P. compiled and processed the data, together with A.P.-F. who also aided the analysis.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sanjeev Gupta.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes with additional discussion of interpretation of flood landforms and Supplementary Figures S1-S3. Supplementary Figure S1 shows high-resolution details of the margin of the Northern Palaeovalley; Supplementary Figure S2 shows the location of detailed bathymetry images in Figures 3 and 4; Supplementary Figure S3 shows a LANDSAT satellite image of some streamlined islands in the Channelled Scabland. (PDF 3798 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gupta, S., Collier, J., Palmer-Felgate, A. et al. Catastrophic flooding origin of shelf valley systems in the English Channel. Nature 448, 342–345 (2007).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing