Formation of sinuous ridges by inversion of river-channel belts in Utah, USA, with implications for Mars Academic Article uri icon


  • © 2019 Elsevier Inc. Sinuous ridges are important landforms on the surface of Mars that show promise for quantifying ancient martian surface hydrology. Morphological similarity of these ridges to river channels in planform led to a hypothesis that ridges are topographically inverted river channels, or “inverted channels”, formed due to an erosion-resistant channel-filling material that preserved a snapshot of the channel geometry in inverted relief due to differential erosion. An alternative deposit-inversion hypothesis proposes that ridges represent exhumed river-channel belts, with geometries that reflect the lateral migration and vertical aggradation of rivers over significant geologic time, rather than the original channel geometry. To investigate these hypotheses we studied sinuous ridges within the Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation near Green River, Utah, USA. Ridges in Utah extend for hundreds of meters, are up to 120 m wide, and stand up to 39 m above the surrounding plain. Ridges are capped by sandstone bodies 3–10 m thick that contain dune- and bar-scale inclined stratification, which we interpret as eroded remnants of channel belts that record the migration and aggradation of single-thread, sand-bedded rivers, rather than channel fills that can preserve the original channel geometry. Caprocks overlie mudstones and thinner sandstone beds that are interpreted as floodplain deposits, and in cases additional channel-belt sandstones are present lower in the ridge stratigraphy. Apparent networks from branching ridges typically represent discrete sandstone bodies that cross at different stratigraphic levels rather than a coeval river network. Ridge-forming sandstone bodies also have been narrowed during exhumation by cliff retreat and bisected by fluvial erosion. Using a large compilation of channel-belt geometries on Earth and our measurements of ridges in Utah, we propose that caprock thickness is the most reliable indicator of paleo-channel geometry, and can be used to reconstruct river depth and discharge. In contrast, channel lateral migration and caprock erosion during exhumation make ridge breadth an uncertain proxy for channel width. An example in Aeolis Dorsa, Mars, illustrates that river discharge estimates based solely on caprock width may differ significantly from estimates based on caprock thickness. Overall, our study suggests that sinuous ridges are not inverted channel fills, but rather reflect exhumation of a thick stratigraphic package of stacked channel belts and overbank deposits formed from depositional rivers over significant geologic time.

altmetric score

  • 1

author list (cited authors)

  • Hayden, A. T., Lamb, M. P., Fischer, W. W., Ewing, R. C., McElroy, B. J., & Williams, R.

citation count

  • 19

publication date

  • November 2019

published in