Big Blue River drainage divide area landform origins, Nebraska and Kansas, USA

· Big Blue River, Kansas, Nebraska, Overview essays
Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

This essay provides an overview of detailed essays describing landform origins along drainage divides in and adjacent to the Nebraska and Kansas Big Blue River drainage basin. The detailed essays can be found under Big Blue River on this website’s sidebar category list. All interpretations in this overview essay and in the detailed essays are based on topographic map evidence and no effort has been made to introduce evidence from other sources. The Big Blue River originates almost on the banks of the northeast-oriented Platte River near Marquette, Nebraska and flows in a northeast and southeast direction to Ulysses, Nebraska. From Ulysses the Big Blue River flows in a south-southeast and south direction to Seward, Crete, Beatrice, and Wymore, Nebraska and Marysville and Blue Rapids, Kansas before joining the east oriented Kansas River near Manhattan, Kansas. Major east and southeast oriented Big Blue River tributaries also originate next to the Platte River and include east oriented Lincoln Creek and the southeast oriented Little Blue River. Topographic map evidence illustrated and described in the detailed essays suggests the Big Blue River valley and tributary valleys eroded headward from what was then an actively eroding east oriented Kansas River valley to capture massive east-, southeast and south-oriented floods flowing across Nebraska and Kansas. Flood waters were derived from a rapidly melting North American ice sheet, the southwest margin of which at that time was located in South Dakota. Flood waters flowing across what is today the Big Blue River drainage basin probably came from multiple directions, with some flood waters flowing directly south from the melting ice sheet, other flood water flowing in a southeast direction along the ice sheet’s southwest margin, and still other flood water moving in an east direction from what were then flood flow routes in the Rocky Mountain region. The south and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River valley probably eroded headward along south-oriented flood flow routes. At that time the Platte River valley to the north did not exist. Headward erosion of the Little Blue River valley from the actively eroding Big Blue River valley beheaded southeast and south-oriented flood flow to what was then the newly eroded Republican River valley, which is located immediately to the south and west. Other east-oriented Big Blue River tributary valleys eroded headward in sequence (from south to north) from the actively eroding south and south-southeast-oriented Big Blue River valley to behead south-oriented flood flow to the newly eroded Big Blue River tributary valley located immediately to the south. Headward erosion of the northeast and east oriented Platte River valley beheaded all east, southeast, and south-oriented flood flow routes to the newly eroded Big Blue River valley and tributary valleys. This interpretation is fundamentally different from previously published interpretations of Big Blue River drainage basin landform origins.

Figure 1: Regional map showing the Big Blue River, major Big Blue River tributaries, and adjacent rivers and tributaries (select and click on maps to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Big Blue River drainage basin drainage history

This essay provides an overview of more detailed essays illustrating and describing topographic map evidence related to Nebraska and Kansas Big Blue River drainage divide area landform origins. The detailed essays can be found under Big Blue River on this website’s sidebar category list. Figure 1 provides a regional map of southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas and shows the Big Blue River route, major Big Blue River tributaries, and routes of adjacent rivers and their major tributaries. The Big Blue River originates near Marquette, Nebraska (in the figure 1 north center area) almost along the northeast-oriented Platte River banks and flows in a northeast and then southeast direction to Ulysses, Nebraska where it joins a south-oriented tributary. From Ulysses the Big Blue River flows in a south and south-southeast direction to Seward, Crete, and Beatrice, Nebraska before entering Kansas. Once in Kansas the Big Blue River flows through Marysville and Blue Rapids before joining the east oriented Kansas River near Manhattan. The Kansas River joins the Missouri River at Kansas City (located east of the figure 1 east edge). The south-southeast oriented Missouri River flows between Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa and forms the Nebraska-Iowa state line in the figure 1 northeast corner area. Major Big Blue River tributaries in Nebraska enter from the west and are generally oriented in an east or southeast direction and include Lincoln Creek and the Little Blue River. Several of these east oriented Big Blue River tributaries, like the Big Blue River, originate near or almost on the banks of the east and northeast oriented Platte River. Figure 1 shows no significant Nebraska Big Blue River tributaries entering from the east. The Little Blue River joins the Big Blue River near Blue Rapids, Kansas. Otherwise Big Blue River tributaries in Kansas are relatively short and the Big Blue River drainage basin is also relatively narrow, being located between the southeast-oriented Republican River to the west and unnamed (on figure 1) south-oriented Kansas River tributaries to the east. The asymmetric Big Blue River tributary pattern is a significant feature deserving an explanation as are the locations of Big Blue River and tributary headwaters along the northeast-oriented Platte River banks.

  • Looking only at the Big Blue River asymmetric tributary pattern in figure 1 it is tempting to suggest the south and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River valley eroded headward along the western margin of a continental ice sheet and captured east oriented streams blocked by that ice sheet’s presence. However, close study of topographic map evidence illustrated in the Big Blue River drainage basin detailed essays and in essays for adjacent drainage basins suggests an alternate explanation is much more probable. The alternate explanation is the south and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River valley eroded headward at a time when immense east and southeast-oriented floods were converging in southeast Nebraska with an immense south-oriented flood. The large floods were derived from a rapidly melting North American ice sheet. At the time of Big Blue River drainage basin formation the decaying ice sheet’s southwest margin was located in South Dakota and giant melt water rivers were flowing south from huge ice-walled canyons which had been carved into the ice sheet’s surface. The Missouri River valley had not yet been eroded headward into the figure 1 map area and the Platte River valley did not exist. The immense south-oriented rivers flowed south as giant floods across eastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas where flood waters were captured by headward erosion of the east-oriented Kansas River, which had eroded headward from what was then newly eroded Missouri River valley. These immense south-oriented floods probably moved large icebergs from the decaying ice sheet into eastern Nebraska and northeast Kansas and the icebergs may have contained significant glacially transported debris. Evidence for these large south-oriented ice-walled canyons is included in essays found under James River and Big Sioux River on the sidebar category list. Additional evidence for giant south-oriented floods in northeast Nebraska (north of the Big Blue River drainage basin) is contained in essays found under Elkhorn River on the sidebar category list.
  • Converging with these immense south-oriented floods in southeast Nebraska were immense east and southeast-oriented floods. These floods were also derived from the rapidly melting ice sheet, although were flowing in south and southeast directions along the ice sheet’s southwest and west margin. The southeast-oriented floods were immense ice-marginal floods moving along the ice sheet’s southwest margin and at the time of Big Blue River drainage basin formation were flowing across much of the region between what were then the emerging Rocky Mountains and the decaying ice sheet’s southwest margin. The east oriented floods were derived from melt water which had flowed to the ice sheet’s west margin in Alberta and had then flowed south in a giant melt water river which at that time flowed along and across the present day east-west continental divide. This giant “Great Divide” melt water river was systematically dismembered by headward erosion of deep valleys from the east and west (which created the continental divide) in sequence from south to north as Rocky Mountain uplift occurred. Rocky Mountain uplift was probably related to the ice sheet’s presence and deep flood water erosion and deposition occurring in what is today the Rocky Mountain region. Detailed essays for Rocky Mountain flood flow routes have not yet been written, but are scheduled to be written in 2012 or early 2013. What is important to understand Big Blue River drainage basin history is that at the time of Big Blue River drainage basin formation immense southeast-oriented floods in the Colorado and Wyoming Rocky Mountain region were being systematically captured by headward erosion of the South Platte River valley and later the North Platte River valleys and tributary valleys and the flood waters were being diverted in an east direction across Nebraska. The east- and southeast-oriented floods as they converged with the large south-oriented floods in southeast Nebraska eroded the Big Blue River drainage basin.

Figure 2: More detailed regional map (than figure 1) showing east-oriented Big Blue River headwaters and tributaries flowing to the south-southeast oriented Big Blue River in Nebraska. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 2 provides a somewhat more detailed map (than figure 1) of the east-oriented Big Blue River headwaters and tributaries in southeast Nebraska. The south and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River segment flows from Ulysses into Seward and Saline Counties to the figure 2 southeast corner. The northeast and southeast-oriented Big Blue River headwaters segment originates near Marquette in northern Hamilton County and flows roughly parallel to the northeast oriented Platte River before turning to flow in a southeast direction to Ulysses. Notice how the Big Blue River headwaters are located almost adjacent to the northeast oriented Platte River, which flows from the figure 2 west center edge to the figure 2 north edge. In the figure 2 northwest corner is the northeast oriented Loup River. South of the northeast- and southeast-oriented Big Blue River headwaters segment is east-oriented Lincoln Creek, then east-oriented Beaver Creek (which is tributary to east-oriented West Fork Big Blue River), and finally east-southeast oriented Little Blue River (south of Hastings in the figure 2 southwest corner area). Notice also how Lincoln Creek, Beaver Creek, and West Fork Big Blue River headwaters also are located near the Platte River route. Little Blue River headwaters are located west of the figure 2 map area, but are also located near the Platte River. Figure 2 does not show topography, although on topographic maps the Loup River is flowing along the northwest wall of a broad northeast-oriented valley while the Platte River is flowing along that same valley’s southeast wall. The northeast-oriented Big Blue River headwaters route suggests a common origin for northeast-oriented river and stream channels in and adjacent to that broad northeast-oriented valley.

  • The large northeast-oriented Loup-Platte River valley was eroded by immense northeast-oriented floods which were converging with massive southeast-oriented flood flow. Southeast-oriented flood flow entering what at that time was a giant northeast-oriented river was forced to flow along the river’s northwest wall while flood waters from further west flowed in the valley’s center and along the southeast wall. The east-oriented Big Blue River headwaters valley and the east-oriented Big Blue River tributary valleys were eroded by flood waters spilling eastward from the northeast-oriented Platte River valley (perhaps before the present day Platte River valley was eroded) and represented flood waters derived from melt water flood flow routes which had flowed through the present day Rocky Mountains region. The multiple east-oriented Big Blue River tributaries and headwaters routes provide evidence of multiple flood flow channels such as might be found in an east-oriented anastomosing channel complex. Headward erosion of the south and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River valley captured the east-oriented flood flow and diverted the flood waters south to the newly eroded east-oriented Kansas River valley. Further information about the convergence of flood waters in this large northeast-oriented Loup-Platte River valley is found in essays found under Loup River and Platte River (NE) on the sidebar category list.

Figure 3: Topographic map illustrating Platte River-Big Blue River drainage divide area south and east of Central City, Nebraska. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 3 provides a topographic map of the Platte River-Big Blue River drainage divide area south and east of Central City, Nebraska (located in northwest corner). The map contour is 10 meters. The Platte River flows in a northeast direction across the figure 3 northwest corner. The Big Blue River flows in a northeast direction in the figure 3 southwest quadrant and then east direction in the figure 3 center area before turning to flow in a northeast and east-northeast direction to the figure 3 east edge. Prairie Creek is the northeast, east, and northeast oriented stream north of the Big Blue River and is a Big Blue River tributary. Note how Big Blue River tributaries originate almost on the edge of the Platte River valley, the floor of which is 30-40 meters lower than where the Big Blue River tributaries begin. Evidence from topographic maps such as figure 3 suggests prior to headward erosion of the broad northeast-oriented Loup-Platte River valley flood waters flowed east into the Big Blue River drainage basin and eroded the multiple east-oriented Big Blue River headwaters and tributary valleys. East-oriented flood flow ended when the deeper northeast-oriented Loup-Platte River valley eroded headward and beheaded the east-oriented flood flow routes to the Big Blue River drainage basin. It is possible at the time the northeast-oriented Loup-Platte River valley was eroded flood flow in that valley was so great that flood waters continued to spill eastward until flood flow diminished. East oriented flood flow would have diminished as headward erosion of deep valleys further to the west and northwest captured the east-oriented flood flow and diverted the flood waters in other directions. Such flood flow captures were probably greatly aided by Rocky Mountain uplift, which was occurring at the time the Big Blue River drainage basin was being eroded. Southeast-oriented flood flow into the Loup River drainage basin would have ended as headward erosion of the Missouri River-Niobrara River valley in northeast Nebraska beheaded the flood flow routes. Niobrara River valley headward erosion occurred slightly after Platte River valley headward erosion and shortly after Niobrara River valley headward erosion White River valley and Cheyenne River valley headward erosion beheaded many additional southeast and south-oriented flood flow routes into the region.

Figure 4: Little Blue River-Republican River drainage divide area in Webster and Nuckolls Counties, Nebraska. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 4 provides a topographic map of the Little Blue River-Republican River drainage divide in Webster and Nuckolls Counties, Nebraska (located directly south and west of the figure 2 southwest corner). The east oriented Republican River can be seen along the figure 4 south edge (Red Cloud is the town in the southwest corner). The southeast-oriented stream in the figure 4 northeast corner is the Little Blue River (Nelson is the town in the figure 4 east center area). Notice how Republican River tributaries are predominantly oriented in a south direction and how Little Blue River tributaries are either oriented in a north direction or have north-oriented tributaries. A close look at the Little Blue River-Republican River drainage divide reveals shallow through valleys linking the north-oriented Little Blue River tributary valleys with the south-oriented Republican River tributary valleys. The figure 4 Little Blue River-Republican River drainage divide was eroded by multiple south-oriented flood flow channels moving flood waters to what was then the newly eroded Republican River valley. The Republican River valley eroded headward from the newly eroded east oriented Kansas River valley and eroded into the figure 4 map area slightly in advance of the Little Blue River valley, which eroded headward from the south and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River valley, which also eroded headward from the newly eroded Kansas River valley. Headward erosion of the deep Little Blue River valley and its east and northeast oriented tributary valleys systematically beheaded (from east to west) the south-oriented flood flow channels moving flood waters to the newly eroded Republican River valley. Flood waters on north ends of the beheaded flood flow channels reversed flow direction to erode the north-oriented Little Blue River tributary valleys. Because flood flow channels were beheaded in sequence from east to west and because flood flow channels were anastomosing or interconnected, reversed flood flow in newly beheaded and reversed flood flow channels could capture flood waters from further west. Such captures of flood water provided the water volumes needed to erode the north-oriented Little Blue River tributary valleys.

  • Figures 3 and 4 in this essay have shown only a sample of the topographic map evidence included in the ten detailed Big Blue River drainage basin essays. Each of the ten detailed essays includes location maps and eight or more topographic maps illustrating similar detailed evidence, which is described and interpreted in the accompanying discussions. Evidence shown includes through valleys eroded across all Big Blue River drainage basin drainage divides, both within the Big Blue River drainage basin and between the Big Blue River drainage basin and adjacent drainage basins. Orientations of Big Blue River and tributary valleys and adjacent river and tributary valleys are also shown and interpreted. Evidence shown indicates that east-oriented Big Blue River tributary valleys and the Big Blue River headwaters valley eroded headward in sequence across south and southeast-oriented flood flow and developed a major east-oriented flood flow channel complex, which was beheaded by Platte River valley headward erosion. In other words, prior to Big Blue River drainage basin development east-oriented flood flow from the Rocky Mountains was moving in an east direction further to the south in what is now the Kansas River drainage basin. Development of the Big Blue River drainage basin was the final stage in the Kansas River drainage basin development. Headward erosion of the Platte River valley beheaded flood routes to the Big Blue River drainage basin and subsequently beheaded flood flow routes to the Republican River and Smoky Hill River drainage basins further to the west. Essays describing Republican and Smoky Hill River drainage divide areas can be found under those river names on the sidebar category list.

Figure 5: Big Blue River and tributaries in Kansas, with Big Blue River joining the east-oriented Kansas River near Manhattan. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 5 provides a somewhat more detailed regional map (than figure 1) showing the Big Blue River and tributaries in northeast Kansas. The Big Blue River flows in a south direction in Marshall County and then in southwest and southeast direction along the Riley-Pottawatomie County border before joining the east-oriented Kansas River near Manhattan. West of the Big Blue River is the southeast oriented Republican River, which flows from the Clay County northwest corner to join the northeast and east-oriented Kansas River near Junction City in Geary County. Big Blue River tributaries from the west are generally oriented in a southeast direction. The Little Blue River flows in a south-southeast direction from the figure 5 north edge across eastern Washington County to join the Big Blue River near Blue Rapids in southwest Marshall County. The Black Vermillion River is a northwest, west, and southwest oriented Big Blue River tributary flowing from Nemaha County across southeast Marshall County to join the Big Blue River. Note several northwest-oriented Black Vermillion River tributaries and also northwest-oriented tributaries to the southwest-oriented Big Blue River segment. The southeast and northwest-oriented tributaries seen in the figure 5 map area provide evidence of southeast-oriented flood flow routes captured and beheaded by Big Blue River valley headward erosion. Northwest-oriented tributary valleys were eroded by reversals of flood flow on northwest ends of beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow channels. Southeast-oriented Big Blue River and Republican River valley segments were probably eroded headward along major southeast-oriented flood flow channels, while the southwest-oriented Big Blue River valley segment was eroded across the southeast-oriented flood flow. Detailed essays provide additional evidence for these flood flow captures including illustrating through valleys crossing present day drainage divides. East of the Big Blue River are south-oriented Kansas River tributaries suggesting south-oriented flood flow became more prominent further to the east.

  • This overview essay has only provided a brief sample of evidence shown in the more detailed essays. To properly understand the Big Blue River drainage basin origin it is necessary to understand the entire Missouri River drainage basin origin. The Big Blue River drainage basin is just one of many smaller drainage basins of the much larger Missouri River drainage basin, which needs to be viewed in the context of its relationship to the much larger entity. The Missouri River drainage basin was eroded as massive south and southeast-oriented floods eroded the western, southwestern, and southern walls of what was once a deep “hole” in which the rapidly melting North American ice sheet had been located. The ice sheet had been large, comparable in size if not larger than the present day Antarctic Ice Sheet. When fully developed the ice sheet had stood high above the surrounding non glaciated surface, perhaps as much as two kilometers or more high. The ice sheet had also had deep “roots”, perhaps extending as much as one kilometer or more below the surrounding non glaciated surface. The deep “hole” in which the ice sheet “roots” were located had been formed by a combination of deep glacial erosion under the thick ice sheet and crustal warping caused by the ice sheet’s tremendous weight. The surface on which the ice sheet had formed no longer exists and the surface surrounding the ice sheet margins (all evidence of which has probably been destroyed) has been completely altered by deep melt water flood erosion. How much melt water flood erosion occurred in southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas prior to Big Blue River drainage basin development is difficult if not impossible to determine, although it is possible hundreds of meters of bedrock material were stripped from the region.

Introduction to Missouri River drainage basin research project essay series

  • This Nebraska and Kansas Big Blue River drainage basin landform origins overview essay and its related detailed essays is one of a series of overview essays and related detailed essays in the Missouri River drainage basin landform origins research project. The research project goal is to use topographic map evidence to describe the evolution of drainage divides separating each significant present day Missouri River tributary valley and also to describe the evolution of drainage divides separating the present day Missouri River drainage basin from adjacent drainage basins. Each overview essay and its related detailed essays pertains to a specific Missouri River tributary, tributary to a present day Missouri River tributary, or a present day Missouri River valley segment. Each detailed essay illustrates and discusses detailed topographic map evidence describing the evolution of a secondary drainage divide separating specified Missouri River tributary valleys.
  • The Missouri River drainage basin research project introduces a new regional geomorphology paradigm. An essay titled “About the ‘thick ice sheet that melted fast’ geomorphology paradigm” provides a brief introduction to the new paradigm and how the new paradigm emerged. Detailed evidence illustrated and discussed in the Missouri River drainage basin research project builds a strong case for (1) deep glacial erosion of the North American continent by a thick North American ice sheet that created and occupied a deep “hole”, (2) rapid melting of that thick North American ice sheet, (3) immense floods of south-oriented melt water, (4) headward erosion of deep east, northeast and north-oriented valley systems to capture the south-oriented melt water floods and to divert the melt water further and further northeast into space the ice sheet had once occupied, (5) deep flood water erosion of the North American continent surface, and (6) crustal warping that resulted in uplift of mountain ranges as flood waters were deeply eroding what are now high mountain regions. This interpretation is fundamentally different from most previous interpretations. The Nebraska and Kansas Big Blue River drainage basin evidence in this overview essay and its related detailed essays is presented for review and discussion by qualified research geomorphologists and geologists.

Additional information and sources of maps

This essay has only provided a sample of the drainage divide evidence supporting the “thick ice sheet that melted fast” geomorphology paradigm. Many additional examples could be provided, especially by using more detailed topographic maps. Readers are encouraged to look at mosaics of detailed topographic maps to see the abundance of supporting data. Maps used in this study were created by the United States Geological Survey and can be purchased in hard copy from the United States Geological Survey or from dealers offering United States Geological Survey maps. Hard copy maps can also be observed at United States Geological Survey map depositories located in major research libraries and elsewhere throughout the United States and in other countries. Illustrations used in this essay were created using National Geographic Society TOPO software and digital data. National Geographic Society digital maps can be purchased from the National Geographic Society or from dealers offering National Geographic Society digital maps.

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