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Fluvial Processes andResulting Landforms ofBig Bend National Park
The Rio Grandeor Rio Bravo del Norte,
depending on what side of the river you are
on, creates the natural border between
Texas and Mexico. Like all rivers, it began
as a small trickle of water running downhill,
eventually carving a path into the landscape
around it.Over time, this fluvial activity will
continue to cut and shape the geography of
the Chihuahuan Desert. The geography of
Big Bend National Park provides excellent
examples of the fluvial development of this
arid region.

The park is located in southwest Texas on


the ³big bend´ of the Rio Grande River. In
Fig.1. Rio Grande River (Big Bend National Park, TX) certain areas in the park, canyons along the
river testify to the power of water over land.
As the water moves through the river channel, it continuously transports sediment from areas upstream
and deposits it along the channel, eventually carrying the finer grain sand, silt, and clay to the ocean.
This fluvial erosion and deposition has occurred throughout the Big Bend region over time, producing
various geographical features.

The geography of Big Bend is a combination of both


lowland and mountain environments. This
topography, along with the scarcity of vegetation,
allow for greater erosion of geological formations.
Over time, highland areas are weathered and eroded
into lowland areas. During seasonal rains, water
runoff from mountains can accumulate quickly, due to
steep gradients, and form streambeds. These washes
eventually dry up and form dry creek beds, called
arroyos. Arroyos are stream channels that are cut into
valley alluvium, and are common in the southwest
(Cooke and Reeves 1976). Fig.2. Arroyo in the Indian Head Badlands (Big
Bend National Park, TX)
In mountainous arid regions, rainwater also flows
from narrow canyons and gorges onto adjacent
plains. The water carries the eroded sediment or
alluvium, and deposits it at the based of the
mountain. The accumulation of the alluvium over
time creates a triangular formation called an
alluvial fan. Alluvial deposits are poorly sorted
sediment containing mostly gravel, cobbles, and
coarse grain material in a sand matrix. They are
different from talus deposits because they do not
rely solely on gravity. In an arid climate like Big
Bend, the alluvial fan has a steeper slope. The
Fig.3. Alluvial fan of mountain debris in a canyon of structure of the fan can be broken down into three
the Chihuahuan Desert (Big Bend National Park, TX) sections. The upper fan is the steepest and has the
coarsest sediments with high velocity deposition.
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The mid-fan has a gentler slope and more moderately sized deposits that occur by narrow branching
channels and sheetfloods. The distal fan base has very little slope and sediments are mainly braided
channels and flood deposition.Fan sheetflood deposits consist of fining-upward sequences of
moderately sorted and imbricated pebbly sandstones, and can be easily distinguished from poorly
sorted debris-flow deposits (Nichols, 1999).

Pediments can also form from fluvial deposition. A pediment is a gently sloping, low relief bedrock
erosional surface at the base of a mountain range (Pelletier 2010). Pediments form mainly in arid
mountainous regions. This is due to the decrease in overlying alluvial fan deposits that allow the
exposure of the pediment. There are four principle conceptstied to the formation of pediments: lateral
corrasion, sheetflood erosion, sub-surface weathering, and slope retreat. Corrasion involves the lateral
erosion occurring from a channel flow as it down cuts. Sheetfloods create a broad expanse of storm-
water that spreads quickly and uniformly over an area. Sub-surface weathering or slope retreat are
thought to be more likely causes. However, none of these concepts has gained widespread acceptance
(Pelletier 2010).

Fig.4. A view of Rio Grande River Valley looking west-northwest from mountain pediment just upstream from
Presidio, Texas.

The Big Bend Region is home to a variety of geological formations and geographical landscapes.
rogenies, faulting, and volcanism have shaped the area over millions of years. Over that time,
erosion and depositional forces have also contributed to the lay of the land. Fluvial processes have
carved out canyons, valleys, and arroyos; they have left behind alluvial deposits, pediments, and other
sedimentary formations. The weathering and transportation of sediments by water has played an
important role in the formation of Big Bend National Park, as well as other arid climates around the
world. Fluvial processes will continue to sculpt and shape this area for many years to come.