Star Trekish, rafting scientists make bold discovery on Fraser River

SFU geographer Jeremy Venditti (orange jacket; black hat) is among several scientists aboard a Fraser River Rafting Expeditions measuring boat passing through a Fraser River canyon. -  SFU PAMR
SFU geographer Jeremy Venditti (orange jacket; black hat) is among several scientists aboard a Fraser River Rafting Expeditions measuring boat passing through a Fraser River canyon. – SFU PAMR

A Simon Fraser University-led team behind a new discovery has “?had the vision to go, like Star Trek, where no one has gone before: to a steep and violent bedrock canyon, with surprising results.”

That comment comes from a reviewer about a truly groundbreaking study just published in the journal Nature.
Scientists studying river flow in bedrock canyons for the first time have discovered that previous conceptions of flow and incision in bedrock-rivers are wrong.

SFU geography professor Jeremy Venditti led the team of SFU, University of Ottawa and University of British Columbia researchers on a scientific expedition on the Fraser River.

“For the first time, we used oceanographic instruments, commonly used to measure three-dimensional river flow velocity in low land rivers, to examine flow through steep bedrock canyons,” says Venditti. “The 3-D instruments capture downstream, cross-stream and vertical flow velocity.”

To carry out their Star Trek-like expedition, the researchers put their lives into the experienced hands of Fraser River Rafting Expeditions, which took them into 42 bedrock canyons. Equipped with acoustic Doppler current profilers to measure velocity fields, they rafted 486 kilometres of the Fraser River from Quesnel to Chilliwack. Their raft navigated turbulent waters normally only accessed by thrill-seeking river rafters.

“Current models of bedrock-rivers assume flow velocity is uniform, without changes in the downstream direction. Our results show this is not the case,” says Colin Rennie, an Ottawa U civil engineering professor.

“We observed a complicated flow field in which high velocity flow plunges down the bottom of the canyon forming a velocity inversion and then rises along the canyon walls. This has important implications for canyon erosion because the plunging flow patterns result in greater flow force applied to the bed.”

The scientists conclude that river flow in bedrock canyons is far more complex than first thought and the way scientists have linked climate, bedrock incision and the uplift of mountains needs to be rethought. They say the complexity of river flow plays an important role in deciding bedrock canyon morphology and river width.

“The links between the uplift of mountain ranges, bedrock incision by rivers and climate is one of the most important open questions in science,” notes Venditti. “The incision that occurs in bedrock canyons is driven by climate because the climate system controls precipitation and the amount of water carried in rivers. River flow drives the erosional mechanisms that cut valleys and allow the uplift of majestic mountain peaks.”

Venditti adds that river flow velocity in bedrock canyons also influences the delivery of sediment from mountain-rivers to lowland rivers.

“Sediment delivery controls water levels and stability of lowland rivers, which has important implications for lowland river management, flooding impacts to infrastructure, availability of fish habitat and more.

“Lowland river floodplains and deltas are the most densely populated places on earth, so understanding what is happening in mountain rivers is important because our continued development of these areas is significantly affected by what is happening upstream.”

Against the current with lava flows

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A pit chain marks a subterranean lava tunnel. Its roof collapsed partially. – Image: Mars Image Explorer / asu.edu

An Italian astronomer in the 19th century first described them as ‘canali’ – on Mars’ equatorial region, a conspicuous net-like system of deep gorges known as the Noctis Labyrinthus is clearly visible. The gorge system, in turn, leads into another massive canyon, the Valles Marineris, which is 4,000 km long, 200 km wide and 7 km deep. Both of these together would span the US completely from east to west.

As these gorges, when observed from orbit, resemble terrestrial canyons formed by water, most researchers assumed that immense flows of water must have carved the Noctis Labyrinthus and the Valles Marineris into the surface of Mars. Another possibility was that tectonic activity had created the largest rift valley on a planet in our solar system.

Lava flows caused the gorges

These assumptions were far from the mark, says Giovanni Leone, a specialist in planetary volcanism in the research group of ETH professor Paul Tackley. Only lava flows would have had the force and mass required to carve these gigantic gorges into the surface of Mars. The study was recently published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

In recent years, Leone has examined intensively the structure of these canyons and their outlets into the Ares Vallis and the Chryse Planitia, a massive plain on Mars’ low northern latitude. He examined thousands of high-resolution surface images taken by numerous Mars probes, including the latest from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and which are available on the image databases of the US Geological Survey.

No discernible evidence of erosion by water

His conclusion is unequivocal: “Everything that I observed on those images were structures of lava flows as we know them on Earth,” he emphasises. “The typical indicators of erosion by water were not visible on any of them.” Leone therefore does not completely rules out water as final formative force. Evidence of water, such as salt deposits in locations where water evaporated from the ground or signs of erosion on the alluvial fans of the landslides, are scarce but still existing. “One must therefore ask oneself seriously how Valles Marineris could have been created by water if one can not find any massive and widespread evidence of it.” The Italian volcanologist similarly could find no explanation as to where the massive amounts of water that would be required to form such canyons might have originated.

Source region of lava flows identified

The explanatory model presented by Leone in his study illustrates the formation history from the source to the outlet of the gorge system. He identifies the volcanic region of Tharsis as the source region of the lava flows and from there initial lava tubes stretched to the edge of the Noctis Labyrinthus. When the pressure from an eruption subsided, some of the tube ceilings collapsed, leading to the formation of a chain of almost circular holes, the ‘pit chains’.

When lava flowed again through the tubes, the ceilings collapsed entirely, forming deep V-shaped troughs. Due to the melting of ground and rim material, and through mechanical erosion, the mass of lava carved an ever-deeper and broader bed to form canyons. The destabilised rims then slipped and subsequent lava flows carried away the debris from the landslides or covered it. “The more lava that flowed, the wider the canyon became,” says Leone.

Leone supported his explanatory model with height measurements from various Mars probes. The valleys of the Noctis Labyrinthus manifest the typical V-shape of ‘young’ lava valleys where the tube ceilings have completely collapsed. The upper rims of these valleys, however, have the same height. If tectonic forces had been at work, they would not be on the same level, he says. The notion of water as the formative force, in turn, is undermined by the fact that it would have taken tens of millions of cubic kilometres of water to carve such deep gorges and canyons. Practically all the atmospheric water of all the ages of Mars should have been concentrated only on Labyrinthus Noctis. Moreover, the atmosphere on Mars is too thin and the temperatures too cold. Water that came to the surface wouldn’t stay liquid, he notes: “How could a river of sufficient force and size even form?”

Life less likely

Leone’s study could have far-reaching consequences. “If we suppose that lava formed the Noctis Labyrinthus and the Valles Marineris, then there has always been much less water on Mars than the research community has believed to date,” he says. Mars received very little rain in the past and it would not have been sufficient to erode such deep and large gorges. He adds that the shallow ocean north of the equator was probably much smaller than imagined – or hoped for; it would have existed only around the North Pole. The likelihood that life existed, or indeed still exists, on Mars is accordingly much lower.

Leone can imagine that the lava tubes still in existence are possible habitats for living organisms, as they would offer protection from the powerful UV rays that pummel the Martian surface. He therefore proposes a Mars mission to explore the lava tubes. He considers it feasible to send a rover through a hole in the ceiling of a tube and search for evidence of life. “Suitable locations could be determined using my data,” he says.

Swimming against the current

With his study, the Italian is swimming against the current and perhaps dismantling a dogma in the process. Most studies of the past 20 years have been concerned with the question of water on Mars and how it could have formed the canyons. Back in 1977, a researcher first posited the idea that the Valles Marineris may have been formed by lava, but the idea failed to gain traction. Leone says this was due to the tunnel vision that the red planet engenders and the prevailing mainstream research. The same story has been told for decades, with research targeted to that end, without achieving a breakthrough. Leone believes that in any case science would only benefit in considering other approaches. “I expect a spirited debate,” he says. “But my evidence is strong.”

Geologist investigates canyon carved in just 3 days in Texas flood

This is an aerial photograph taken near the time of the 2002 flood event at Canyon Lake, Texas. Floodwaters overflowed Canyon Lake reservoir and carved the gorge downstream. -  Comal County, Texas.
This is an aerial photograph taken near the time of the 2002 flood event at Canyon Lake, Texas. Floodwaters overflowed Canyon Lake reservoir and carved the gorge downstream. – Comal County, Texas.

In the summer of 2002, a week of heavy rains in Central Texas caused Canyon Lake-the reservoir of the Canyon Dam-to flood over its spillway and down the Guadalupe River Valley in a planned diversion to save the dam from catastrophic failure. The flood, which continued for six weeks, stripped the valley of mesquite, oak trees, and soil; destroyed a bridge; and plucked meter-wide boulders from the ground. And, in a remarkable demonstration of the power of raging waters, the flood excavated a 2.2-kilometer-long, 7-meter-deep canyon in the bedrock.

According to a new analysis of the flood and its aftermath-performed by Michael Lamb, assistant professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and Mark Fonstad of Texas State University-the canyon formed in just three days.

A paper about the research appears in the June 20 advance online edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.


Our traditional view of deep river canyons, such as the Grand Canyon, is that they are carved slowly, as the regular flow and occasionally moderate rushing of rivers erodes rock over periods of millions of years.

Such is not always the case, however. “We know that some big canyons have been cut by large catastrophic flood events during Earth’s history,” Lamb says.

Unfortunately, these catastrophic megafloods-which also may have chiseled out spectacular canyons on Mars-generally leave few telltale signs to distinguish them from slower events. “There are very few modern examples of megafloods,” Lamb says, “and these events are not normally witnessed, so the process by which such erosion happens is not well understood.” Nevertheless, he adds, “the evidence that is left behind, like boulders and streamlined sediment islands, suggests the presence of fast water”-although it reveals nothing about the time frame over which the water flowed.

This is why the Canyon Lake flood is so significant. “Here, we know that all of the erosion occurred during the flood,” Lamb says. “Flood waters flowed for several weeks, but the highest discharge-during which the bulk of the erosion took place-was over a period of just three days.”

Lamb and Fonstad reached this conclusion using aerial photographs of the region taken both before and after the flood, along with field measurements of the topography of the region and measurements of the flood discharge. Then they applied an empirical model of the sediment-carrying capacity of the flood-that is, the amount of soil, rocks, boulders, and other debris carried by the flood to produce the canyon.

The analysis revealed that the rate of the canyon erosion was so rapid that it was limited only by the amount of sediment the floodwaters could carry. This is in contrast to models normally applied to rivers where the erosion is limited by the rate at which the underlying rock breaks and is abraded.

The researchers argue that the rate of erosion was rapid because the flood was able to pop out and cart away massive boulders (a process called “plucking”)-producing several 10- to 12-meter-high waterfalls that propagated upstream toward the dam, along with channels and terraces. The flood was able to pluck these boulders because the bedrock below the soil surface of the valley was already fractured and broken.

The abrasion of rock by sediment-loaded waters-while less significant in terms of the overall formation of the canyon-produced other features, like sculpted walls, plunge pools at the bases of the waterfalls, and teardrop-shaped sediment islands. The sediment islands are particularly significant, Lamb says, because “these are features we see on Earth and on Mars in areas where we think large flow events have occurred. It’s nice that here we’re seeing some of the same features that we’ve interpreted elsewhere as evidence of large flow events.”

The results, Lamb says, offer useful insight into ancient megafloods, both on Earth and on Mars, and the deep canyons they left behind. “We’re trying to build models of erosion rates so we can go to places like Mars and make quantitative reconstructions of how much water was there, how long it lasted, and how quickly it moved,” Lamb says. In addition, he says, “this is one of a few places where models for canyon formation can be tested because we know the flood conditions under which this canyon formed.”