Controls on the abruptness of gravel-sand transitions
Friday, 19 December 2014: 11:35 AM
As gravel-bedded rivers fine downstream, they characteristically exhibit an abrupt transition from gravel- to sand-bed. This is the only abrupt transition in grain-size that occurs in the fluvial system and has attracted considerable attention. A number of competing theories have been proposed to account for the abruptness of the transition, including base-level control, attrition of ~10mm gravel to produce sand, and sediment sorting processes. The prevailing theory for the emergence of abrupt transitions is size selective sorting of bimodal sediment wherein gravel deposits due to downstream declining shear stress, fining the bedload until a sand-bed emerges. We explored this hypothesis by examining grain-size, shear stress, gravel mobility and sand suspension thresholds through the gravel-sand transition (GST) of the Fraser River, British Columbia. The Fraser GST is an arrested gravel wedge with patches of gravel downstream of the wedge forming a diffuse extension. There is an abrupt change in bed slope through the transition that leads to an abrupt change in shear stress. The GST, bed-slope change and backwater caused by the ocean are all coincident spatially, which enhances the sharpness of the GST. Interestingly, the bimodal reach of the river occurs downstream of the GST and exhibits no downstream gradients in shear stress, suspended sediment flux, gravel mobility or sand suspension thresholds. This calls into question the prevailing theory for the emergence of an abrupt GST by size selective sorting. We provide evidence, both empirical and theoretical, that suggests the emergence of an abrupt GST is caused by rapid deposition of sand when fine gravel deposits. We argue that the emergence of gravel-sand transitions is a consequence of gravel-bedded rivers adopting a steeper slope than sand-bedded rivers. The abruptness arises because the bed slope required to convey the gravel load fixes the distal location of a terminal gravel wedge, and once the river has lost the capacity to carry the gravel mixture, the river adopts the lower slope required to pass the sand load. Progressive downstream fining of a gravel-sand mixture is not a necessary condition for the emergence of a gravel-sand transition.