Controls on late quaternary incised-valley dimension along passive margins evaluated using empirical data

Christopher R. Mattheus, Antonio B. Rodriguez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Incised valleys are canyon-like features that initially form near the highstand shoreline and evolve over geological time as rivers erode into coastal plains and continental shelves to maintain equilibrium-gradient profiles in response to sea-level fall. Most of these valleys flood during sea-level rise to form estuaries. Incised-valley morphology strongly controls the rate of creation of sediment accommodation, valley-fill facies architecture and the preservation potential of coastal lithosomes on continental shelves, and affects coastal physical processes. Nonetheless, little is known about what dictates incised-valley size and shape and whether these metrics can be used to explain principal formation processes. The main control on alluvial channel morphology over human time scales is discharge; this is based on numerous empirical studies and is well-constrained because all variables are easily measured at this short time scale. Knowledge of long-term river evolution over a complete glacio-eustatic cycle, on the contrary, remains largely conceptual, experimental and based on individual systems because variables that are thought to drive morphological change are not easily quantified. In spite of this difficulty, existing models of incised-valley formation at the coast suggest that valley evolution is driven largely by downstream forcing mechanisms, highlighting sea-level and shelf gradient/morphology as the dominant controls on valley incision. Although valleys are cut by rivers, whose channels are a direct reflection of discharge, little empirical data exist in coastal areas to address the degree to which valley evolution is governed by upstream controls. The late Quaternary is the best time period to examine because it provides the most complete sedimentary record and many variables, including sea-level, tectonics, substrate lithology and drainage network characteristics, are accurately constrained. Here, 38 late Quaternary valleys along the coast of two different passive continental margins are compared, which suggests that valley shape and size are governed primarily by upstream, intrinsic controls such as discharge. Valley width, depth and cross-sectional area are found to be predictable at the highstand shoreline and are scaled with the size of their drainage basin, which has important implications for estimating sediment discharge to continental shelves and deep water environments during periods of low sea-level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1113-1137
Number of pages25
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Alluvial
  • Drainage basin
  • Fluvial geomorphology
  • Graded-river profile
  • Incised valley
  • Sea-level

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology
  • Stratigraphy


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