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Flow Regime and Bedforms

Sedimentary structures are visible textures or arrangements of sediments within a rock. dearteassociazione.orglogists use these structures to interpret the processes that made the rock and the environment in which it formed. They use uniformitarianism to usually compare sedimentary structures formed in modern environments to lithified counterparts in ancient rocks. Below is a summary discussion of common sedimentary structures that are useful for interpretations in the rock record.

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Bedding Planes

Figure (PageIndex1): Horizontal strata in southern Utah.

The most basic sedimentary structure is bedding planes, the planes that separate the layers or strata in sedimentary and some volcanic rocks. Visible in exposed outcroppings, each bedding plane indicates a change in sediment deposition conditions. This change may be subtle. For example, if a section of underlying sediment firms up, this may be enough to create a form or a layer that is dissimilar from the overlying sediment. Each layer is called a bed, or stratum, the most basic unit of stratigraphy, the study of sedimentary layering.


Flow Regime and Bedforms

Figure (PageIndex4): Bedforms from under increasing flow velocities.

In fluid systems, such as moving water or wind, sand is the most easily transported and deposited sediment grain. Smaller particles like silt and clay are less movable by fluid systems because the tiny grains are chemically attracted to each other and stick to the underlying sediment. Under higher flow rates, the fine silt and clay sediment tend to stay in place and the larger sand grains get picked up and moved.

Bedforms are sedimentary structures created by fluid systems working on sandy sediment <25>. Grain size, flow velocity, and flow regime or pattern interact to produce bedforms having unique, identifiable physical characteristics. Flow regimes are divided into upper and lower regimes, which are further divided into uppermost, upper, lower, and lowermost parts. The table below shows bedforms and their associated flow regimes. For example, the dunes bedform is created in the upper part of the lower flow regime.

Flow Regime (part) Bedform Description
Lower (lowest) Plane bed Lower plane bed, flat laminations
Lower (lower) Ripples Small (with respect to flow) inclined layers dipping downflow
Lower (upper) Dunes Larger inclined cross beds, ±ripples, dipping downflow
Upper (lower) Plane bed Flat layers, can include lined-up grains (parting lineations)
Upper (upper) Antidunes Hard to preserve reverse dunes dipping shallowly upflow
Upper (uppermost) Chutes/pools (rare) Erosional, not really a bedform; rarely found preserved

Plane Beds

Figure (PageIndex5): Subtle lines across this sandstone (trending from the lower left to upper right) are parting lineations.

Plane beds created in the lower flow regime are like bedding planes, on a smaller scale. The flat, parallel layers form as sandy sediment piles and move on top of layers below. Even non-flowing fluid systems, such as lakes, can produce sediment plane beds. Plane beds in the upper flow regime are created by fast-flowing fluids. They may look identical to lower-flow-regime beds; however, they typically show parting lineations, slight alignments of grains in rows and swaths, caused by high sediment transport rates that only occur in upper flow regimes.


Figure (PageIndex7): A bidirectional flow creates this symmetrical wave ripple. From rocks in Nomgon, Mongolia. Note the crests of the ripples have been eroded away by subsequent flows in places.

First scientifically described by Hertha Ayrton <26>, ripple shapes are determined by flow type and can be straight-crested, sinuous, or complex. Asymmetrical ripples form in a unidirectional flow. Symmetrical ripples are the result of an oscillating back-and-forth flow typical of intertidal swash zones. Climbing ripples are created from high sedimentation rates and appear as overlapping layers of ripple shapes (see figure).

api/deki/files/7801/XBedsZion.jpg?revision=1&size=bestfit&width=585&height=563" />Figure (PageIndex9): Lithified cross-bedded dunes from the high country of Zion National Park, Utah. The complexity of bedding planes results from the three-dimensional network of ancient dune flows.

Dunes are very large and prominent versions of ripples and typical examples of large cross-bedding <27>. Cross bedding happens when ripples or dunes pile atop one another, interrupting, and/or cutting into the underlying layers. Desert sand dunes are probably the first image conjured up by this category of bedform.

British dearteassociazione.orglogist Agnold (1941) considered only Barchan and linear Seif dunes as the only true dune forms. Other workers have recognized transverse and star dunes as well as parabolic and linear dunes anchored by plants that are common in coastal areas as other types of dunes.

Figure (PageIndex11): Herringbone cross-bedding from the Mazomanie Formation, upper Cambrian of Minnesota.
Figure (PageIndex13): Antidunes forming in Urdaibai, Spain.

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Antidunes are so named because they share similar characteristics with dunes, but are formed by a different, opposing process <29>. While dunes form in lower flow regimes, antidunes come from fast-flowing upper flow regimes. In certain conditions of high flow rates, the sediment accumulates upstream of a subtle dip instead of traveling downstream (see figure). Antidunes form in phase with the flow; in rivers, they are marked by rapids in the current. Antidunes are rarely preserved in the rock record because the high flow rates needed to produce the beds also accelerate erosion.