Impact of recycling and lateral sediment input on grain size fining trends—Implications for reconstructing tectonic and climate forcings in ancient sedimentary systems
Grain size trends in basin stratigraphy are thought to preserve a rich record of the climatic and tectonic controls on landscape evolution. Stratigraphic models assume that over geological timescales, the downstream profile of sediment deposition is in dynamic equilibrium with the spatial distribution of tectonic subsidence in the basin, sea level and the flux and calibre of sediment supplied from mountain catchments. Here, we demonstrate that this approach in modelling stratigraphic responses to environmental change is missing a key ingredient: the dynamic geomorphology of the sediment routing system. For three large alluvial fans in the Iglesia basin, Argentine Andes we measured the grain size of modern river sediment from fan apex to toe and characterise the spatial distribution of differential subsidence for each fan by constructing a 3D model of basin stratigraphy from seismic data. We find, using a self‐similar grain size fining model, that the profile of grain size fining on all three fans cannot be reproduced given the subsidence profile measured and for any sediment supply scenario. However, by adapting the self‐similar model, we demonstrate that the grain size trends on each fan can be effectively reproduced when sediment is not only sourced from a single catchment at the apex of the system, but also laterally, from tributary catchments and through fan surface recycling. Without constraint on the dynamic geomorphology of these large alluvial systems, signals of tectonic and climate forcing in grain size data are masked and would be indecipherable in the geological record. This has significant implications for our ability to make sensitive, quantitative reconstructions of external boundary conditions from the sedimentary record.