Reconstructing river flows remotely on Earth, Titan, and Mars

Samuel P D Birch, Gary Parker, Paul Corlies, Jason M Soderblom, Julia W Miller, Rose V Palermo, Juan M Lora, Andrew D Ashton, Alexander G Hayes, J. Taylor Perron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Alluvial rivers are conveyor belts of fluid and sediment that provide a record of upstream climate and erosion on Earth, Titan, and Mars. However, many of Earth’s rivers remain unsurveyed, Titan’s rivers are not well resolved by current spacecraft data, and Mars’ rivers are no longer active, hindering reconstructions of planetary surface conditions. To overcome these problems, we use dimensionless hydraulic geometry relations—scaling laws that relate river channel dimensions to flow and sediment transport rates—to calculate in-channel conditions using only remote sensing measurements of channel width and slope. On Earth, this offers a way to predict flow and sediment flux in rivers that lack field measurements and shows that the distinct dynamics of bedload-dominated, suspended load-dominated, and bedrock rivers give rise to distinct channel characteristics. On Mars, this approach not only predicts grain sizes at Gale Crater and Jezero Crater that overlap with those measured by the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, it enables reconstructions of past flow conditions that are consistent with proposed long-lived hydrologic activity at both craters. On Titan, our predicted sediment fluxes to the coast of Ontario Lacus could build the lake’s river delta in as little as ~1,000 y, and our scaling relationships suggest that Titan’s rivers may be wider, slope more gently, and transport sediment at lower flows than rivers on Earth or Mars. Our approach provides a template for predicting channel properties remotely for alluvial rivers across Earth, along with interpreting spacecraft observations of rivers on Titan and Mars.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2206837120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number29
StatePublished - Jul 18 2023


  • Titan
  • planetary landscapes
  • hydrology
  • rivers
  • Mars

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