Mega-meander paleochannels of the southeastern Atlantic Coastal Plain, USA


Geography and Anthropology

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Paleodischarge estimates based on the slope-area method and channel boundaries determined from stratigraphic cross-sections indicate that large, terminal Pleistocene meandering paleochannels (“mega-meanders”) in river valleys of the southeastern Atlantic Coastal Plain of the United States represent bankfull flows that were at least double the magnitude of those on modern rivers. Correlation of radiocarbon- and luminescence-dated paleomeanders with previously reported pollen and eolian sedimentary records suggests that greater discharge was driven by seasonally wetter conditions resulting from dynamic changes to regional precipitation and runoff that occurred in association with global warming at the end of the Pleistocene. While reflecting larger channel-forming flows, the exceptionally large widths and radii of curvature of mega-meanders were nonetheless maintained by a relatively modest discharge magnitude that was between two and four times larger than modern bankfull flow and within the size range of the present two- to five-year flood. Despite their large planform, the paleochannels conveyed relatively modest bankfull discharges because a wide, shallow shape limited their cross-sectional area and hydraulic radius. Within the late Quaternary evolution of fluvial systems in the region, scrolled mega-meanders constitute a transitional meandering planform that remained influenced by large volumes of sandy bedload following the sand-bed braided channels of the late Wisconsin interval, circa 30–17 ka. In addition to greater discharge, the large planimetric dimensions of paleochannels reflect a lack of cohesive vertical accretion facies on paleomeander floodplains, a sediment regime that transported large quantities of bedload sand, and the influence of these factors on channel boundary composition, bank stability, and channel shape. Findings underscore the importance of reconstructing channel cross-sectional dimensions and slope when estimating discharge for infilled paleomeanders. This approach reduces uncertainties surrounding channel cross-sectional area, gradient, and boundary composition inherent to studies lacking subsurface data that rely upon meander geometry to retrodict discharge.

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Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

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