Multi-scale tectonic controls on fluvial terrace formation in a glacioeustatically-dominated river system: inference from the lower Min¿o terrace record

W. Viveen

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



The general aim of this thesis is to untangle the interacting effects of climate, glacioeustacy, and regional, and local tectonics on fluvial terrace formation. The NW Iberian lower Miño River valley was chosen as a study site, because for this region, a very detailed, long-term, climate record is available. The lower Miño is situated near the Atlantic Ocean, which ensures that the influence of changing past sea levels was registered in the terrace record. Then, there is controversy about the presence or absence of tectonic activity, although a well-developed network of pre-existing faults and seismic activity in the region suggest that tectonic activity is present. Lastly, a completely preserved terrace sequence makes it possible to study the evolution of the area in detail. These, and more details, are found in Chapter 1.


In Chapter 2, a regional assessment of recent tectonic activity is made. Studies on faulted terrace deposits and the recognition of small, fault-bounded tectonic basins indicate the presence of neo-tectonic activity. Further evidence is gathered from a tectono-geomorphic analysis, whereby deeply incised valleys, as well as asymmetrically-developed tributary catchments, and the presence of knick points in river profiles that coincide with the presence of structural lineaments, show that the eastern part of the study area experiences tectonic deformation. It is proposed that due to the non-optimal angle between the orientation of the pre-existing faults, and the current horizontal stress orientation, these older faults are re-activated, resulting in strain transfer from one fault segment to another. This results in differential block movements leading to local extension and basin subsidence. Alternatively, strike-slip activity may have caused the tectonic basins, but for this mechanism no evidence was found.


The focus of Chapter 3 is on a local terrace staircase near the village of Vila Meã. First, the terrace staircase and associated fluvial deposits are described in detail. Then, an age model for the Vila Meã terraces is presented on basis of thermoluminescence and Cosmogenic Ray Exposure (CRE) dating. Minimum ages of up to 650 ka are calculated. On basis of these ages, and terrace surface altitudes, maximum incision rates of 0.07 to 0.09 m ka-1 are reconstructed. It is then discussed that these rates can be used as proxies for regional, vertical tectonic uplift. In the final part of the Chapter, new ideas are presented on the evolution of the lower Miño fluvial terraces. Based on observations made from the terrace deposits, and the proximity of a narrow, steep continental shelf, it is suggested that the fluvial terraces were formed during the initial period of sea level fall, and subsequently incised. Vertical uplift would then have occurred to preserve the terraces above the current river bed.


In Chapter 4, the focus shifts from a local terrace staircase to the regional terrace record. The entire 55-km long terrace section of the lower Miño is investigated, and 4 selected terrace transects are discussed in terms of number of terraces and sedimentology. Because there is disagreement on the exact number of terraces and their correlations, a new long-distance terrace correlation scheme is presented. The new scheme is based on studies of weathered quartzite gravels in the 4 selected transects. Observed similarities in weathering rate between the transects leads to a proposed terrace correlation gradient of 1 m km-1. The often used correlation model that the terraces tread parallel to the current river bed (gradient 0 m km-1) is then rejected. The second half of the Chapter focuses on a longitudinal profile modelling experiment with the FLUVER 2 model. The evolution of the entire Miño-Sil system is modelled over a time period of 450 ka. The outcomes show that a regional uplift rate of 0.08 m ka-1 in combination with glacioeustatic movements seem to be responsible for terrace formation in the lower Miño valley, and thus confirm the earlier hypotheses in Chapter 3. Climate-induces variations in discharge intensity or timing do not have a dominant effect on terrace formation. The outcomes furthermore indicate that the CRE ages presented in Chapter 3, appear to be very close to exact timing of terrace abandonment.


The results of the foregoing Chapters are integrated and implemented in Chapter 5, resulting in a new, detailed, fluvial terrace map of the entire 67-km reach of the lower Miño River. Both the Spanish and Portuguese part is incorporated. The map is derived from detailed mapping from a 5-m Digital Elevation Model (DEM) and over 1500 hours of fieldwork. The map shows the regional distribution of 10 terrace levels and one floodplain level, as well as 9 tectonic basins. A layer with fault elements gives a structural tectonic context to the map. Additional layers give information about more than 400 sites with mapped terrace sediment thicknesses and palaeoflow directions. Results from this mapping exercise show the highly fragmented nature of terrace and basin distribution, which is controlled by N-S, E-W and NW-SE trending faults. The map also suggests the presence of unpaired terraces along the river, which may be caused by localised differential movements of tectonic blocks.


These localised movements are the topic of Chapter 6. Here, the interactions between regional vertical uplift, local basin subsidence, and unequal uplift on both sides of the Miño River on terrace formation are investigated by means of a forward modelling exercise with the TERRACE model. The model simulations that match best with mapped terraces and fluvial sediment thicknesses are the ones that incorporate all three effects of vertical uplift, basin subsidence, and unequal uplift. This shows that terrace preservation is the complex end result of three, interacting, tectonic processes. A regional uplift rate of 0.10 m ka-1 gave the best results, which is slightly higher than the rate of 0.08 m ka-1 presented in Chapter 3. This confirms that regional uplift increases from the coast towards the east, which is in agreement with the findings of Chapter 2. Another important result is that the interacting effect of the three aforementioned tectonic processes can lead to fill terraces one valley side, and strath terraces at the other.


In Chapter 7, all findings of the previous Chapters are combined. The separate effects of climate change, glacioeustacy, and regional and local tectonic movements on fluvial terrace formation are discussed. This shows that in many published terrace correlation schemes for tectonically active regions, the effects of multi-scale tectonics are insufficiently incorporated or considered. The same applies for the possible effects of variable uplift pulses over middle to late Quaternary timescales. This leads for instance to the separation of fill and strath terraces in a chronological context, because they are still thought to be the resultant of climate-triggered changes in discharge and sediment load of the river. But this thesis shows that they can form at the same time due to localised tectonic movements. The Chapter concludes with a number of recommendations on how to incorporate tectono-geomorphic analysis in fluvial terrace research, which will lead to a better understanding of tectonic control on fluvial terrace formation world-wide.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Veldkamp, Tom, Promotor
  • van Balen, R.T., Co-promotor, External person
  • Vidal Romani, J.R., Co-promotor, External person
  • Schoorl, Jeroen, Co-promotor
Award date2 Oct 2013
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461737281
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • fluvial soils
  • terraces
  • river terrace soils
  • tectonics
  • climatic change
  • sea level fluctuations
  • rivers
  • river valleys
  • spain
  • portugal


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