Geomorphic/Tectonic Control of Sediment Discharge to the Ocean: The Importance of Small Mountainous Rivers


Virginia Institute of Marine Studies


Bedford Institute of Oceanography

Analysis of data from 280 rivers discharging to the ocean indicates that sediment loads/ yields are log-linear function of basin area and maximum elevation of the river basin. Other factors controlling sediment discharge (e.g., climate, runoff) appear to have secondary importance. A notable exception is the influence of human activity, climate, and geology on the rivers draining southern Asia and Oceania. Sediment fluxes from small mountainous rivers, many of which discharge directly onto active margins (e.g., western South and North America a most high-standing oceanic islands), have been greatly underestimated in previous global sediment budgets, perhaps by as much as a factor of three. In contrast, sediment fluxes to the ocean from large rivers (nearly all of which discharge onto passive margins or marginal seas) have been overestimated, as some of the sediment load is subaerially sequestered in subsiding deltas. Before the proliferation of dam construction in the latter half of this century, rivers probably discharged about 20 billion tons of sediment annually to the ocean. Prior to widespread farming and deforestation (beginning 2000-2500 yr ago), however, sediment discharge probably was less than half the present level. Sediments discharged by small mountainous rivers are more likely to escape to the deep sea during high stands of sea level by virtue of a greater impact of episodic events (i.e., flash floods and earthquakes) on small drainage basins and because of the narrow shelves associated with active margins. The resulting delta/fan deposits can be distinctly different than the sedimentary deposits derived from larger rivers that discharge onto passive margins.

This paper is reprinted with permission from the Journal of Geology, 1992, volume 100, pp. 525-544. The only changes are that references were updated, references were reformatted to be consistent with others within this volume, and the two data tables and associated references do not appear here; the interested reader is referred to the original paper for these tables.

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