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Tributary channel networks formed by depositional processes

Abstract

Understanding the detailed structure of landscape topography is important when assessing risks in coastal plain areas susceptible to the combined effects of fluvial, pluvial and coastal flooding. Key to this analysis is the identification and characterization of drainage basins that control surface water flow, but the factors controlling the formation and evolution of drainages in low-relief coastal plains is not well known. Here, we analyse the distribution and morphology of coastal drainage networks using a compilation of airborne lidar covering the entirety of the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain between the Rio Grande and Mississippi rivers. We observe that the dendritic drainage basins that govern the coastal landscape have boundaries that are initially set and controlled by sinuous alluvial ridges defining previous courses of modern rivers that were abandoned through the process of channel avulsion. These depositional ridges form topographic highs on an otherwise low-relief coastal plain and define the initial extent and occurrence of the coastal drainages. While the basin boundaries are formed by depositional processes, they exhibit geometric scaling characteristics similar to basins interpreted to have evolved through erosion alone. This work presents evidence for the creation and evolution of erosional dendritic channel networks within depositional environments with broad implications for understanding floodplain channelization, partitioning and routing of sediment and water across low-relief landscapes, and timescales and mechanisms of landscape evolution.

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Fig. 1: Shaded relief map of the northern Gulf of Mexico coastal plain.
Fig. 2: Digital terrain models of erosional tributary networks forming on the coastal plain with drainage divides coinciding with the position of depositional alluvial ridges and elevation cross sections of each drainage basin.
Fig. 3: Digital terrain model of two adjacent coastal drainage networks on the central Texas Coastal Plain, separated by an alluvial ridge divide that has maintained active channel morphology.
Fig. 4: Examples of channel long profiles and associated bounding floodplain profiles.
Fig. 5: Hack’s law plot of the power-law length–area scaling relationship.

Data availability

All elevation datasets used within this study are publicly available and archived by the Texas Natural Resources Information System (TNRIS) (https://data.tnris.org) and the NOAA digital coast (https://coast.noaa.gov/dataviewer). Specific names and acquisition years of each dataset are provided in Extended Data Table 1.

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Acknowledgements

J.M.S. was supported by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management co-operative agreement M16AC0020. We thank T. Goudge and the Mohrig and Passalacqua research teams for thoughtful criticisms and suggestions.

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Contributions

J.M.S. and D.M. designed the study. J.M.S., B.T.C., D.M. and P.P. contributed to data analysis. J.M.S. authored the manuscript, with all co-authors contributing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to John M. Swartz.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Geoscience thanks Douglas Edmonds and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: James Super, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Comparison of DEM resolution.

Example of digital elevation model (DEM) resolution on recognition of subtle geomorphic elements and low-relief channel networks. The 10 m NED model fails to resolve the sinuous channel forms comprising the alluvial ridge separating the two dendritic drainages easily observed in the lidar-derived 3 m DEM.

Extended Data Fig. 2 North American Continental River Drainage Basins.

The large continental river basins draining North America to the Gulf of Mexico that bound the studied region of the Coastal Plain. As each river approaches the coast it transitions from a broad, dendritic upland catchment area to an aggrading distributary. The coastal plain drainages studied are located in between these distributaries.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Lidar dataset footprints and analyzed drainage basins.

Locations of basins (yellow) included in analysis within blue lidar footprint (blue).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Ongoing erosion and divide migration across initial alluvial divides.

Example of dendritic basins (yellow) initially bounded by alluvial ridge divides (blue) on the Louisiana Coastal Plain. The northern network cuts across the western divide, and a new divide between the two networks is established in between the alluvial ridges, with position determined by the uppermost extent of the channel heads of each network.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Complex dendritic networks formed by alluvial ridges.

Digital terrain model of erosional tributary networks forming on the Louisiana coastal plain with drainage divides coinciding with the position of depositional alluvial ridges, and elevation cross sections of each drainage basin. Tributary drainage networks are shown in yellow while alluvial ridge drainage divides are shown in dashed blue lines.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Complex dendritic networks formed by alluvial ridges.

Digital terrain model of erosional tributary networks forming on the Louisiana coastal plain with drainage divides coinciding with the position of depositional alluvial ridges, and elevation cross sections of each drainage basin. Tributary drainage networks are shown in yellow while alluvial ridge drainage divides are shown in dashed blue lines.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Complex dendritic networks formed by alluvial ridges.

Digital terrain model of erosional tributary networks forming on the Texas coastal plain with drainage divides coinciding with the position of depositional alluvial ridges, and elevation cross sections of each drainage basin. Tributary drainage networks are shown in yellow while alluvial ridge drainage divides are shown in dashed blue lines. Note the long linear stream reaches that are the result of anthropogenic rectification of stream networks for drainage and agriculture.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Complex dendritic networks formed by alluvial ridges.

Digital terrain model of erosional tributary networks forming on the Texas coastal plain with drainage divides coinciding with the position of depositional alluvial ridges, and elevation cross sections of each drainage basin. Tributary drainage networks are shown in yellow while alluvial ridge drainage divides are shown in dashed blue lines. Note the long linear stream reaches that are the result of anthropogenic rectification of stream networks for drainage and agriculture.

Extended Data Table 1 Lidar data source table

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Swartz, J.M., Cardenas, B.T., Mohrig, D. et al. Tributary channel networks formed by depositional processes. Nat. Geosci. 15, 216–221 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-022-00900-x

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