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Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event

Nature Geoscience volume 3, pages 477481 (2010) | Download Citation


Deep river canyons are thought to form slowly over geological time (see, for example, ref. 1), cut by moderate flows that reoccur every few years2,3. In contrast, some of the most spectacular canyons on Earth and Mars were probably carved rapidly during ancient megaflood events4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. Quantification of the flood discharge, duration and erosion mechanics that operated during such events is hampered because we lack modern analogues. Canyon Lake Gorge, Texas, was carved in 2002 during a single catastrophic flood13. The event offers a rare opportunity to analyse canyon formation and test palaeo-hydraulic-reconstruction techniques under known topographic and hydraulic conditions. Here we use digital topographic models and visible/near-infrared aerial images from before and after the flood, discharge measured during the event, field measurements and sediment-transport modelling to show that the flood moved metre-sized boulders, excavated 7 m of limestone and transformed a soil-mantled valley into a bedrock canyon in just 3 days. We find that canyon morphology is strongly dependent on rock type: plucking of limestone blocks produced waterfalls, inner channels and bedrock strath terraces, whereas abrasion of cemented alluvium sculpted walls, plunge pools and streamlined islands. Canyon formation was so rapid that erosion might have been limited by the ability of the flow to transport sediment. We suggest that our results might improve hydraulic reconstructions of similar megafloods on Earth and Mars.

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Fieldwork was completed with permission from the Canyon Lake Gorge Preservation Society and the US Army Corps of Engineers. We are indebted to Bill Ward for facilitating this access, sharing his field notes and discussions. We thank B. McElroy, P. Myrow, R. Ewing, J. Shaw and D. Mohrig for field assistance. R. Sears provided photographs taken during the flood event.

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  1. California Institute of Technology, Geological and Planetary Sciences, 1200 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Michael P. Lamb
  2. Texas State University, Department of Geography, 601 University Dr., San Marcos, Texas 78666, USA

    • Mark A. Fonstad


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M.P.L. was primarily responsible for field measurements, sediment-transport modelling, palaeo-hydraulic analysis and drafting the manuscript. M.A.F. provided field observations immediately following the flood, preliminary hydraulic modelling and assisted in manuscript preparation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael P. Lamb.

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