Late Quaternary biotic and abiotic controls on long-term sediment flux in a northern Australian tropical river system
The modern distribution of monsoonal rainforest in the Australian tropics is patchy and is mainly associated with river corridors and groundwater springs, which indicates a strong dependence on hydrologic and geomorphic conditions. While their present distribution is well known, very little data exists on past spatial and temporal dynamics of these ecosystems, or their medium‐ to longer‐term controls. Factors such as (i) fire frequency and type, and/or (ii) hydroclimatic conditions (e.g. droughts) have been proposed to control riverine corridor rainforest extent. Recent observations, however, also suggest an additional (iii) geomorphic control induced by alluvial knickpoint migration. Sediment sequences provide valuable archives for the reconstruction of longer‐term (a) floodplain sedimentary dynamics, (b) local vegetation history, and (c) catchment‐wide fire histories. This study investigates such a sediment sequence at Wangi Creek, and shows that a phase of aggradation, lasting ~4000 years, was recently disrupted by channel incision and floodplain erosion. The aggradational phase is characterized by sand deposition with average vertical floodplain accretion rates of 0.8 cm/yr and includes phases of soil development. The recent incisional phase has changed hydro‐geomorphic conditions and caused widespread degradation of vegetation, erosion and lowering of the macro‐channel surface. While there is no evidence in our data for an erosional event of similar magnitude since the onset of late Holocene floodplain aggradation, Wangi Creek experienced significant erosion and incision immediately before ~4000 years, providing the first evidence for a tropical cut‐and‐fill river system. We hence argue that phases of aggradation mainly controlled by biotic processes alternate and depend on feedbacks with incision phases controlled mainly by abiotic processes. The results show that eco‐hydro‐geomorphic feedbacks may play a crucial role in the medium‐ to longer‐term history of tropical fluvial systems and need to be considered when interpreting fluvial archives with regards to climate, fire or human induced change.