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Definition: alluvial fan from Processing Water, Wastewater, Residuals, and Excreta for Health and Environmental Protection: An Encyclopedic Dictionary

A fan-shaped deposit of coarse materials formed by a stream where its velocity abruptly decreases, e.g., at the mouth of a ravine, at the foot of a mountain, or as the stream flows onto a gentle plain. Also called alluvial cone.

Summary Article: alluvial fan
From Encyclopedia of Environmental Change

A fan-shaped, low-angle depositional landform of predominantly fluvial origin, characterised by a distributary pattern of channels, and composed of alluvial deposits (see alluvium). Alluvial fans, also known as alluvial cones, tend to be located in the piedmont zone at the foot of a mountain or upland where rivers and streams deposit bedload at a distinct break of slope, commonly fault controlled. Unlike mountain-front river systems, alluvial fans are oriented transverse to the mountain front. They are well developed at the mouths of narrow valleys or canyons, where flow expansion occurs, leading to deposition. They typically show a concave longitudinal profile, a convex cross-profile and down-fan fining of sediment grain size. Fluvially dominated alluvial fans (fluvial fans) differ from colluvial fans dominated by debris flows (gravity-flow fans) in that the former tend to be larger, lower-angled and associated with larger, less rugged drainage basins.

Many classic examples of alluvial fans occur in arid and semi-arid settings, such as Death Valley in California. They typically have a radius of a few kilometres to tens of kilometres from apex to toe, and their deposits may be several hundred metres thick. Adjacent fans along a mountain front may coalesce to form a bajada. Alluvial fans in humid settings (humid fans) include the Kosi Fan in northern India, with a radius of 150 km from apex to toe. Alluvial fans in proglacial settings are sometimes known as outwash fans, in contrast to outwash plains (see sandur). Some river systems terminate inland at a terminal fan due to infiltration or evaporation. Alluvial fans that advance into a body of standing water are sometimes described as fan deltas.

Alluvial fan deposits are well represented in the stratigraphical record where they are an important component of the fill of many fault-controlled sedimentary basins. Their interpretation provides important sedimentological evidence of environmental change. The sedimentary facies of alluvial fan deposits can be confused with those of braided river deposits (see braiding), and the term fanglomerate has been used to describe coarse-grained sedimentary deposits attributed to alluvial fan deposition.


[See also megafan, submarine fan]

  • Ballantyne, CK; Whittington, G (1999) Late Holocene floodplain incision and alluvial fan formation in the central Grampian Highlands, Scotland: Chronology, environment and implications. Journal of Quaternary Science 14: 651-671.
  • Blair, TC; McPherson, JG (1984) Alluvial fans and their natural distinction from rivers based on morphology, hydraulic processes, sedimentary processes and facies assemblages. Journal of Sedimentary Research A64: 450-489.
  • Bull, WB (1977) The alluvial fan environment. Progress in Physical Geography 1: 222-270.
  • Cain, SA; Mountney, NP (2009) Spatial and temporal evolution of a terminal fluvial fan system: The Permian Organ Rock Formation, South-east Utah, USA. Sedimentology 56: 1774-1800.
  • Constante, A; Peña, JL; Muñoz, A; Picazo, J (2011) Climate and anthropogenic factors affecting alluvial fan development during the late Holocene in the central Ebro Valley northeast Spain. The Holocene 21: 275-286.
  • Hartley, AJ; Weissmann, GS; Nichols, GJ; Warwick, GL (2010) Large distributive fluvial systems: Characteristics, distribution, and controls on development. Journal of Sedimentary Research 80: 167-183.
  • Harvey, AM (2012) The coupling status of alluvial fans and debris cones: A review and synthesis. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 37: 64-76.
  • Harvey, AM; Mather, AE; Stokes, M (eds) (2005) Alluvial fans: Geomorphology, sedimentology, dynamics. Bath: Geological Society.
  • Jones, SJ (2004) Tectonic controls on drainage evolution and development of terminal alluvial fans, southern Pyrenees, Spain. Terra Nova 16: 121-127.
  • McEwen, LJ; Owen, G; Matthews, JA; Hiemstra, JF (2011) Late Holocene development of a Norwegian alpine alluvial fan affected by proximal glacier variations, episodic undercutting, and colluvial activity. Geomorphology 127: 198-215.
  • Nichols, GJ; Fisher, JA (2007) Processes, facies and architecture of fluvial distributary system deposits. Sedimentary Geology 195: 75-90.
  • Rachocki, AH; Church, M (eds) (1990) Alluvial fans: A field approach. Chichester: Wiley.
  • Weissmann, GS; Nichols, G; Scuderi, LA et al. (2010) Fluvial form in modern continental sedimentary basins: Distributive fluvial systems. Geology 38: 39-42.
  • Zielinski, T; Loon, Van AJ (2003) Pleistocene sandur deposits represent braidplains, not alluvial fans. Boreas 32: 590-611.
Geraint Owen
Swansea University
John A. Matthews
Swansea University
© by SAGE Publications Ltd.

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