Experimental Study of Clay Deposition and Storage in Sandy River Beds

Friday, 19 December 2014
Nathaniel Wysocki, Pennsylvania State University Main Campus, University Park, PA, United States and Elizabeth A Hajek, Penn State University, University Park, PA, United States
Ancient fluvial deposits are important records of historical surface conditions on Earth and also serve as important reservoir units for groundwater and hydrocarbons. Grain-size heterogeneity within fluvial deposits may record paleo-flow variability and/or paleo-sediment supply, but without improved understanding of the conditions under which clay can accumulate in sandy river beds, it is difficult to uniquely interpret these deposits.

In order to better understand the processes controlling when and where fine sediment accumulates in sandy river beds, we conducted a series of physical experiments to test if there is a relationship between supplied clay concentration and the amount of clay preserved in the river bed under constant and variable discharge conditions. In a 15.5 m feed-style flume, water discharge of 0.21 m3/s and sand supply of 15 g/s were used to aggrade a sandy bed 6.5 cm over the course of 4 hours. In three constant-discharge experiments, clay was added in concentrations of 1000 mg/l, 4000 mg/l and 8500 mg/l. An additional experiment with 1000 mg/l clay concentration was conducted with variable water-discharge, where discharge was slowed to a stop every hour of run time and clay allowed to settle for one hour and once overnight. After each experiment, clay deposits observable in the bed were mapped and samples were collected from the dry bed and analyzed for clay content.

Results demonstrate that under constant discharge conditions, clay can accumulate in the bed and that the amount of clay retained in the bed is related to the amount of clay supplied to the flume. In sediment deposited with a low clay concentration, little to no clay accumulated in the bed while under high clay concentration, as much five percent of the bed had a high clay fraction. Clay accumulations that formed under constant flow conditions had different distribution and character from those formed under variable discharge conditions. In all experiments, clay retention was highest in the main aggradational phase of the runs, with markedly less clay preserved during bypass. These results suggest the nature of clay accumulations in sand channel deposits may be useful for reconstructing paleo-discharge conditions, and that subsurface reservoir quality may be predictable if these conditions are constrained.