Anastomosing rivers: a review of their classification, origin and sedimentary products

Makaske, B.


Anastomosing rivers constitute an important category of multi-channel rivers on alluvial plains. Most often they seem to form under relatively low-energetic conditions near a (local) base level. It appears to be impossible to define anastomosing rivers unambiguously on the basis of channel plantform only. Therefore, the following definition, which couples floodplain geomorphology and channel pattern, is proposed in this paper: An anastomosing river is composed of two or more interconnected channels that enclose floodbasins. This definition explicitly excludes the phenomenon of channel splitting by convex-up bar-like forms that characterize braided channels. In present definitions of anastomosing rivers, lateral stability of channels is commonly coupled with their multi-channel character. Here, it is suggested that these two properties be uncoupled. At the scale of channel belts, the terms 'straight', 'meandearing' and 'braided' apply, whereas at a larger scale, a river can be called anastomosing if it meets the definition given above. This means that, straight, meandering and braided channels may all be part of an anastomosing river system. Straight channels are defined by a sinuosity index; i.e., the ratio of the distance along the channel and the distance along the channel-belt axis is less than 1.3. They are the type of channel that most commonly occurs in combination with anastomosis. The occurrence of straight channels is favoured by low stream power, basically a product of discharge and gradient, and erosion-resistant banks. Anastomosing rivers are usually formed by avulsions, i.e., flow diversions that cause the formation of new channels on the floodplain. As a product of avulsion, anastomosing rivers essentially form in two ways: (1) by formation of bypasses, while bypassed older channel-belt segments remain active for some period; and (2) by splitting of the diverted avulsive flow, leading to contemporaneous scour of multiple channels on the floodplain. Both genetic types of anastomosis may coexist in one river system, but whereas the first may be a long-lived floodplain-wide phenomenon, the latter only represents a stage in the avulsion process on a restricted part of the floodplain. Long-lived anastomosis is caused by frequent avulsions and/or slow abandonment of old channels. Avulsions are primarily driven by aggradation of the channel belt and/or loss of channel capacity by in-channel deposition. Both processes are favoured by a low floodplain gradient. Also of influence are a number of avulsion triggers such as extreme floods, log and ice jams, and in-channel aeolian dunes. Although some of these triggers are associated with a specific climate, the occurrence of anastomosis is not. A rapid rise of base level is conductive to anastomosis, but is not a necessary condition. Anastomosing rivers can be considered an example of equifinality, since anastomosis may result from different combinations of process or causes. Anastomosing river deposits have an alluvial architecture characterized by a large proportion of overbank deposits, which encase laterally connected channel sand bodies. Laterally extensive, thick lenses of lithologically heterogeneous, fine-grained avulsion deposits can be an important element of the overbank deposits of anastomosing rivers. These deposits may also fully surround anastomosing channel sandstones. Anastomosing channel sand bodies frequently have ribbon-like geometries and may possess poorly developed upward-fining trends, as well as abrupt flat tops. The overbank deposits commonly comprise abundant crevasse splay deposits and thick natural levee deposits. Lacustrine deposits and coal are common in association with anastomosing river deposits. None of these characteristics is unique to anastomosing river deposits, and in most cases, anastomosis (coexistence of channels) cannot be demonstrated in the stratigraphic record.