Downstream rounding rate of pebbles in the Himalaya

Prakash Pokhrel, Mikael Attal, Hugh D. Sinclair, Simon M. Mudd, Mark Naylor
Academic publication
October 2023

Sediment grains are progressively rounded during their transport down a river. For more than a century, Earth scientists have used the roundness of pebbles within modern sediment, and of clasts within conglomerates, as a key metric to constrain the sediment’s transport history and source area(s). However, the current practices of assessment of pebble roundness are mainly qualitative and based on time consuming manual measurement methods. This qualitative judgement provides the transport history only in a broad sense, such as classifying distance as ’near’ or ’far’. In this study, we propose a new model
that quantifies the relationship between roundness and the transport distance.We demonstrate that this model can be applied to the clasts of multiple lithologies including modern sediment as well as conglomerates deposited by ancient river systems. We present field data from two Himalayan catchments in Nepal. We use the Normalized Isoperimetric Ratio (IRn) which relates a pebble’s area (A) to its perimeter (P), to quantify roundness. The maximum analytical value for IRn is 1, and IRn is expected to increase with transport distance. We propose a non-linear roundness model based on our field data, whereby the difference between a grain’s IRn and the maximum value of 1 decays exponentially with transport distance, mirroring Sternberg’s model of mass loss or size reduction by abrasion. This roundness model predicts an asymptotic behaviour for IRn, and the distance over which IRn approaches the asymptote is controlled by a rounding coefficient. Our field data suggest that the roundness coefficient for granite pebbles is eight times that of quartzite pebbles. Using this model, we reconstruct the transport history of a Pliocene paleo-river deposit preserved at the base of the Kathmandu intermontane Basin. These results, along with other sedimentary evidence, imply that the paleo-river was much longer than the length of the Kathmandu Basin, and that it must have lost its headwaters through drainage capture. We further explore the extreme rounding of clasts from Miocene conglomerate of the Siwaliks Zone and find evidence of sediment recycling.

In Press