A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence
The western Heart River drainage basin is located in southwest North Dakota, USA. Although detailed topographic maps of the western Heart River basin have been available for more than fifty years detailed map evidence has not previously been used to interpret western Heart River drainage basin geomorphic history. The interpretation provided here is based entirely on topographic map evidence. Based on map evidence the western Heart River drainage basin is interpreted to have been eroded during immense flood events, the first of which flowed on a topographic surface at least as high as the highest points in the present-day western Heart River drainage basin, and which stripped the western Heart River drainage basin bedrock layers as deep and broad headcuts, often several kilometers in width, eroded headward along routes of the present-day southeast-oriented western Heart River valley segments and various southeast-oriented tributaries. Flood erosion ended when headward erosion of the deep north-oriented Little Missouri River headcut captured the southeast-oriented flood flow.
The following interpretation of detailed topographic map evidence is provided as evidence in the Missouri River drainage basin landform origins research project, which is compiling similar evidence for all major drainage divides contained within the Missouri River drainage basin and for all major drainage divides with and within certain adjacent drainage basins. The research project is interpreting evidence in the context of a previously unexplored geomorphology paradigm, which is briefly described in the introduction below. Project essays are listed on the sidebar category list under their appropriate Missouri River tributary drainage basin, Missouri River segment drainage basin (by state), and/or state in which the Missouri River drainage basin is located.
- The purpose of this essay is to use topographic map interpretation methods to explore North Dakota’s western Heart River drainage basin landform origins. Map interpretation methods can be used to unravel many geomorphic events leading up to formation of present-day drainage routes and development of other landform features. While each detailed topographic map feature provides detailed evidence to be explained, the solution must be consistent with explanations for adjacent area map evidence as well as solutions to big picture map evidence puzzles. I invite readers to improve upon my solutions or to propose alternate solutions that better explain evidence and are also consistent with adjacent map area and big picture evidence. Readers may do so either by making comments here or by writing and publishing their own essays and then by leaving a link to those essays in a comment here.
- This essay is also exploring a paradigm in which erosional landforms are interpreted as evidence left by immense glacial melt water floods. Implied in that interpretation is the immense floods were derived from a thick North American ice sheet that created a deep “hole” in the North American continent and also melted fast. The previously unexplored paradigm being tested in this and similar essays is a thick North American ice sheet, comparable in thickness to the present day Antarctic ice sheet, occupied approximately the North American region usually recognized to have been glaciated and through its weight and erosive actions created a “deep” North American “hole”, through its weight and deep erosion (and perhaps deposition) along major south-oriented melt water flow routes caused significant crustal warping and tectonic change, through its action of melting fast produced immense floods that flowed across the continent, and through its action of melting fast systematically opened up space in the ice sheet created “hole” so headward erosion of newly developed north-oriented drainage systems captured immense south-oriented melt water floods and diverted immense melt water floods north into space the ice sheet had once occupied.
- If this previously unexplored paradigm is correct the geographic region explored by this essay should contain evidence of immense floods that were captured by headward erosion of new valley systems so as to cause the floods to flow in a different direction. Ability of this previously unexplored paradigm to explain North Dakota’s western Heart River drainage basin landform evidence will be regarded as evidence supporting the “thick ice sheet that melted fast” paradigm.
Heart River drainage basin location
Figure 1: Heart River drainage basin location map (select and click on maps to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
The east oriented Heart River drainage basin is located in southwest North Dakota and drains to the south-oriented Missouri River. This discussion will focus on the origin of the Heart River drainage basin upstream from the Gladstone area and a separate discussion will address the Heart River drainage basin downstream from the Gladstone area. To the north of the Heart River drainage basin is the east oriented Knife River drainage basin (see Knife River drainage basin essay found under North Dakota Missouri Slope on sidebar category list). To the south is the east oriented Cannonball River drainage basin (see Cannonball River drainage basin essay also found under North Dakota Missouri Slope). To the west is the north-oriented Little Missouri River drainage basin. The southeast-oriented Green River is a major Heart River tributary. The western Heart River flows east and southeast. Location of the north-oriented Little Missouri River just west of the east and southeast-oriented Heart River headwaters suggests headward erosion of the north-oriented Little Missouri River valley beheaded flood flow that was moving to the east and southeast oriented Heart River drainage basin. Evidence that flood flow to the western Heart River drainage basin was captured by headward erosion of both the north-oriented Little Missouri River and the Knife River valleys will be explored in discussions related to detailed topographic maps following this overview. For evidence that flood flow came from west of the present day deep north-oriented Little Missouri River valley see Beaver Creek drainage basin essay and Yellowstone River-Beaver Creek drainage divide essay, both of which can be found under Little Missouri River on sidebar category list.
Heart River headwaters south of Belfield
Figure 2: Heart River headwaters south of Belfield. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
East-oriented Heart River headwaters begin at the rim of the deep north-oriented Little Missouri River valley. The Heart River headwaters region exhibits a pronounced northwest-southeast oriented drainage alignment. Note how Norwegian Creek headwaters flow in a southeast direction from the asymmetric drainage divide and then turn abruptly northeast. This abrupt turn to the northeast is an elbow of capture, indicating the northeast-oriented Norwegian Creek valley eroded to the southwest and captured several parallel southeast oriented flow routes. Evidence of the multiple southeast oriented flow routes can also be seen where the northeast-oriented South Branch Heart River has both southeast and northwest oriented tributaries. Also, most visible Little Missouri River tributaries have a northwest-orientation, suggesting they were eroded as reversals of southeast-oriented flow routes. The multiple and parallel southeast-oriented flow routes most likely are remnants of southeast-oriented anastomosing channels carved during a major northwest-southeast flood event. The aligned drainage and the asymmetric Heart River-Little Missouri drainage divide are evidence the deep north-oriented Little Missouri River valley eroded headward across the southeast-oriented flood and the northeast-oriented Norwegian Creek and South Branch Heart River segments were previously eroded headward across the southeast-oriented flood flow. The magnitude of Heart River drainage basin erosion and deep Little Missouri River valley erosion can be used to make rough estimates of the immense volumes of flood water that must have been involved. The Heart River-Little Missouri River drainage divide provides excellent evidence an immense flood shaped the regional landscape.
Bull Creek headwaters
Figure 3: Bull Creek headwaters south of Belfield. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
Green River headwaters north of Belfield
Figure 4: Green River headwaters north of Belfield. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
The southeast-oriented Green River drains the area between the Knife River drainage basin to the north and the north-oriented Little Missouri River valley to the west and Heart River drainage basin to the south. The Green River is the Heart River’s primary tributary from the northwest and flows into the southeast-oriented Heart River near Gladstone. Like the Heart River headwaters to the south Green River headwaters are at the north-oriented Little Missouri River valley rim. Green River headwaters are predominately southeast-oriented. Little Missouri River tributaries are northwest-oriented and this aligned drainage pattern can be explained by headward erosion of the deep north-orient Little Missouri River valley across multiple southeast-oriented flood flow routes. Reversals of flood water to flow back into the deep and newly formed Little Missouri River valley headcut explain the northwest-oriented tributary valleys. Headward erosion of the deep Little Missouri River valley beheaded all southeast flood flow to the Green River drainage basin. The Green River drainage basin contains considerable amounts of surface alluvium that can be traced to sources in the Yellowstone River drainage basin to the west. Introduction of such alluvium into the Green River drainage basin is difficult explain unless neither the deep north-oriented Little Missouri River valley nor the deep northwest-oriented Yellowstone River valley in eastern Montana existed when the Green River drainage basin was eroded. Southeast-oriented floods of the magnitude indicated in this essay, and able to erode the deep Little Missouri and Yellowstone River valleys, are difficult to explain unless composed of glacial melt water from a rapidly melting ice sheet.
Russian Springs Creek drainage basin and Russian Springs Escarpment
Figure 5: Russian Springs Creek drainage basin and Russian Springs Escarpment. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
Barbed Heart River tributaries at Dickinson
Figure 6: Barbed Heart River tributaries at Dickinson. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
The Heart River in the Dickinson area flows in an east-oriented valley. That east-oriented valley appears to have eroded headward across multiple southeast-oriented drainage routes, capturing southeast-oriented flow as it eroded west and causing reversals of flow on beheaded northwest ends of southeast-oriented flood flow routes. The multiple southeast-oriented flow routes and headward erosion of a deep east-oriented headcut are easiest to explain if an immense southeast-oriented flood was moving across the region. Reversals of flow on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes created the present-day northwest-oriented (or barbed) Heart River tributaries. This northwest-southeast drainage alignment is easily seen along the east-oriented Heart River valley in the Dickinson area (see figure 6). The Heart River valley just south of Dickinson also contains several residual hills where floodwaters have eroded valleys completely surrounding isolated hills. Some of these residual hills appear streamlined in a northwest-southeast direction, even though the Heart River valley is at this point a west to east-oriented drainage route. This residual northwest-southeast orientation of Heart River valley residual hills suggests southeast-oriented flood flow and reversed northwest-oriented flood flow into the newly eroded Heart River valley were of sufficient magnitude that east-oriented flood flow in the newly eroded valley was not able to destroy the northwest-southeast landscape orientation.
Heart River drainage basin buttes
Figure 7: Heart River drainage basin buttes. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
Several prominent buttes stand above the Heart River drainage basin surface. Figure 7 illustrates Davis Buttes and the south half of Simon Butte located northeast of Dickinson. The southeast oriented Green River flows between the buttes and southeast and northwest-oriented tributaries originate in the butte areas. This evidence suggests southeast-oriented floods originally flowed on a topographic surface at least as high as the present-day butte tops and the landscape surrounding the buttes was stripped of 100 meters or more of bedrock material. The presence of other buttes and uplands elsewhere in the Heart River drainage basin suggests this landscape stripping occurred everywhere throughout the Heart River drainage basin. Most likely the landscape stripping occurred as large and adjacent southeast-oriented headcuts eroded headward to the northwest. Buttes and other uplands represent locations of slightly more resistant bedrock than the surrounding regions and remain as isolated markers to document the amount of stripping that took place. Many of the gravel pits located along the Green River are in alluvial deposits containing well-rounded cobbles and small boulders characteristic of the Yellowstone River drainage basin rock types. Presence of these rock types in the Green River drainage basin is difficult to explain unless southeast-oriented floods, perhaps moving along an ice sheet margin, transported the alluvium from the Yellowstone River area of eastern Montana.
Heart River-Green River confluence west of Gladstone
The Heart River-Green River confluence is located about one mile west of Gladstone. The Green River flows from the northwest to join the Heart River, which flows from the west. About three miles downstream from Gladstone the northeast-oriented Antelope Creek joins the southeast-oriented Heart River. A large southeast-oriented through valley extends from the Heart River valley (about two miles west of the Heart River-Green River confluence) to the Antelope Creek valley and is today occupied by northwest-oriented Heart River tributaries and a southeast-oriented Antelope Creek (west) tributary. Close inspection of the through valley reveals it is several valleys, typical of an anastomosing channel complex. The anastomosing channel complex becomes even more apparent when the present-day Heart River valley is considered part of the complex. Anastomosing channel complexes are evidence of large floods. In this case the anastomosing channel complex is evidence of a southeast-oriented flood. The deep Heart River valley eroded headward through this southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex to capture floodwaters and create the present-day Heart River valley. Figure 10 below illustrates evidence that prior to deep Heart River valley headward erosion the floodwaters spilled out of the anastomosing channel complex to flow north into the Knife River drainage basin and, had the deep Heart River valley not eroded headward, the western Heart River drainage basin would have been captured and become part of the Knife River drainage basin.
Antelope Creek (west) elbow of capture
Figure 9: Antelope Creek (west) elbow of capture. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
The northeast-oriented Antelope Creek (confluence with Heart River is in the southeast corner of figure 8) begins southwest of Dickinson as a southeast-oriented drainage system. Figure 9 illustrates the Antelope Creek elbow of capture near Schefield and the elbow of capture of an unnamed Antelope Creek tributary. Note how the southeast-oriented Antelope Creek flows in a broad southeast-oriented lowland and how northwest-oriented tributaries flow to the northeast-oriented Antelope Creek segment. Also note how southeast-oriented Antelope Creek tributaries begin in the southeast-oriented butte area south of Antelope Creek and how northwest-oriented Antelope Creek tributaries drain that butte’s northwest end. An immense southeast-oriented flood moving across a topographic surface at least as high as the butte tops from northwest of the present-day Heart River drainage basin to the Cannonball River drainage basin explains this evidence. The southeast-oriented flood stripped the regional landscape to create the topographic surface we see today with the buttes left as markers of the higher topographic surface. Headward erosion of the northeast-oriented Antelope Creek valley captured the southeast-oriented flood to create elbows of capture and to reverse flood water movement on the northwest ends of beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes. Shortly after capture by the northeast-oriented Antelope Creek headcut the southeast-oriented flood flow was beheaded further to the northwest and flood flow to the Antelope Creek drainage basin ceased.
Near capture of western Heart River drainage basin
Figure 10: Near capture of western Heart River drainage basin by Knife River. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.
The near capture of the western Heart River drainage basin by the Knife River is discussed in the Knife River essay, but is of sufficient importance to the Heart River drainage basin history that it is repeated here. A broad shallow valley links the Green River-Heart River confluence area in figure 10 with the Russian Springs Escarpment and headwaters of north-oriented Knife River tributary (the Russian Springs Escarpment is the Heart River-Knife River drainage divide). Today a southwest-oriented tributary flows in the broad shallow valley to join the southeast-oriented Heart River as a barbed tributary. Where the broad shallow valley reaches the Russian Springs Escarpment a prominent north-oriented escarpment-surrounded basin can be seen. This north-oriented escarpment-surrounded basin is a large flood-eroded abandoned headcut carved by north-oriented flood waters that spilled out of the southeast-oriented Heart River-Green River valleys and flowed north to the deeper Knife River drainage basin. These north-oriented floodwaters were in the process of carving a deep headcut south to capture the entire western Heart River drainage basin when volumes of Heart River flood waters were suddenly reduced and/or the deep Heart River headcut eroded northwest so the north-oriented flood waters flowed back to the Heart River valley to create the southwest-oriented Heart River tributary valley we see today. The sudden reduction in Heart River flood flow probably occurred when the flood flow to the Russian Springs Creek drainage basin was captured and diverted to the Knife River drainage basin (see figure 5). Figure 8 illustrates and discusses headward erosion of the deep Heart River valley events that could have captured the north-oriented flood flow.
Eastern Heart River drainage basin evidence
- Evidence describing eastern Heart River drainage basin evolution downstream from the Gladstone area is provided in a separate essay devoted to eastern Heart River drainage basin landform evidence (found under North Dakota Missouri Slope on sidebar category list. .
Overview of western Heart River drainage basin evolution
- The earliest Heart River drainage basin history event determinable from topographic map evidence was a topographic surface at least as high as the present-day Heart River drainage basin butte tops. Age of the resistant butte bedrock masses can be debated although there is general agreement some of the butte bedrock masses are composed of fluvial and/or lacustrine sediments. Presence of fluvial and/or lacustrine sediments indicates those butte areas were once streams and/or lakes and surrounding regions were higher in elevation. The fact fluvial and/or lacustrine sediments remain while surrounding material is gone implies the surrounding material was more easily eroded than the butte sediments. Yet existence of the butte bedrock masses indicates the regional erosional history began from a topographic surface at least as high as the butte tops. Also, the fact the regional aligned drainage pattern cuts across and through the butte regions suggests the same northwest to southeast-oriented floods that produced the present-day western Heart River drainage system also stripped surrounding rock layers to leave the buttes as modern-day monadnocks.
- There is abundant evident topographic map evidence throughout the western Heart River drainage basin to suggest immense southeast-oriented floods carved the regional landscape. Evidence, especially in the form of the north and east-oriented Little Missouri River valley, suggests the southeast-oriented flood water was captured and diverted to flow north and northeast. Small-scale anastomosing channel complexes can be observed at several locations and many of the larger valleys can be viewed in a bigger perspective as being part of a large-scale anastomosing channel complex. A northwest to southeast-oriented drainage alignment prevails across the region. Numerous elbows of capture provide evidence of a rapidly evolving drainage system characteristic of a large-scale flood event. Numerous through valleys link the western Heart River drainage basin with adjacent drainage basins and also cross drainage divides between western Heart River tributaries. Asymmetric drainage divides and erosion produced escarpments provide further evidence of massive flood caused erosion.
- Topographic map evidence indicates the present-day deep western Heart River drainage basin erosion began when the southeast-oriented Heart River valley and various tributary valley eroded headward to capture southeast-oriented flood waters coming from west of the present-day north-oriented Little Missouri River valley. Northeast-oriented Heart River tributary headcuts eroded to the southwest in sequence and probably rapidly to capture southeast-oriented floodwaters moving to the Cannonball River valley. For example, the Antelope Creek (west) headcut eroded southwest before the South Branch Heart River headcut eroded southwest, although the time difference may have been very short. All of these northeast-oriented Heart River tributary valley erosion events diverted southeast-oriented floodwaters that had been moving into the southeast-oriented Cannonball River valley to flow to the more northerly but parallel southeast-oriented Heart River valley
- There is considerable topographic map evidence along the Heart River-Cannonball River drainage divide suggesting headward erosion of the Heart River headcut system beheaded and captured southeast-oriented flood waters moving to the Cannonball River drainage basin. There also is evidence southeast-oriented flood waters moving to southeast-oriented Heart River tributaries, such as Russian Springs Creek were captured and diverted to the Knife River drainage basin to the north. Flood waters from the northwest were captured by headward erosion of the north oriented Little Missouri River valley and that event ended flood flow across the Heart River drainage basin. In other words, the Cannonball River, Heart River, and Knife River drainage basins developed in sequence with the Cannonball River drainage basin erosion occurring slightly in advance of the Heart River drainage basin erosion and the Heart River drainage basin erosion slightly in advance of the Knife River drainage basin erosion, although all three drainage basins were probably being eroded simultaneously. At the same time flood waters responsible for creating the present-day drainage basin landforms came from west of the north oriented Little Missouri River valley and that north-oriented headcut eroded south, meaning the north- and east-oriented Little Missouri River valley formed last and captured flood waters that had been eroding the Knife, Heart, and Cannonball River drainage basins.
Additional information and sources of maps studied
This essay has provided only a sample of the detailed topographic map evidence supporting the flood erosion interpretation. Many additional illustrations could be provided. Readers are encouraged to look at mosaics of the detailed maps to see the abundance of available data. Maps used in this study were created and published by the United States Geologic Survey and can be obtained directly from the United States Geological Survey and/or from dealers offering United States Geological Survey maps. Hard copy maps can also be observed at United States Geological Survey map depositories which are located throughout the United States and elsewhere. Illustrations were created using National Geographic TOPO software and digital map data. TOPO software and map data can be obtained from the National Geographic Society and/or dealers offering National Geographic Society digital map data.