Smoky Hill River drainage basin landform origins, Colorado and Kansas, USA, overview essay

Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

This is an overview essay providing highlights from detailed essays describing drainage divide origins within and surrounding the Colorado and Kansas Smoky Hill River drainage basin. The detailed essays can be found under Smoky Hill River on this website’s sidebar category list. All interpretations of drainage divide origins in this overview essay and in the more detailed essays are based on topographic map evidence and evidence from other sources has not been introduced. The Smoky Hill River originates in eastern Colorado, just west of the Kansas border and is one of several east-oriented Kansas River tributaries originating in the same general region of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Other Kansas River tributaries with headwaters and/or major tributaries originating in the same general region include the Republican, Solomon, and Saline Rivers. These Kansas River tributaries after originating in the same general region diverge and use independent and different routes to reach east central Kansas where they converge to form the east-oriented Kansas River, which is a Missouri River tributary. The diverging and converging valleys originated as channels in what was once a gigantic east-oriented anastomosing channel complex, in which the east-oriented Kansas River tributary valleys were eroded headward in sequence (from south to north) to capture immense south and southeast-oriented floods flowing across Wyoming and Nebraska and into eastern Colorado and Kansas. Flood waters were derived from a rapidly melting North American ice sheet located north of the Smoky Hill River drainage basin. Headward erosion of the deep Smoky Hill River valley from what was then the newly eroded Kansas-Missouri River valley captured the south and southeast-oriented flood waters, which had been flowing to what was then the newly eroded Arkansas River valley, and diverted the flood flow in an east direction to the newly eroded Kansas-Missouri River valley. Saline River valley headward erosion then beheaded flood flow routes to the newly eroded Smoky Hill River valley and Solomon River valley headward erosion next beheaded flood flow routes to the newly eroded Saline River. Finally Republican River valley headward erosion beheaded all flood flow routes to the newly eroded Solomon, Saline, and Smoky Hill River valleys. Evidence supporting this flood origin interpretation is illustrated and discussed in the Smoky Hill River drainage basin essays includes the positions and orientations of present day valleys and tributary valleys, the relatively narrow east-oriented Kansas River tributary drainage basins, and the presence of numerous through valleys crossing present day drainage divides between the east-oriented Kansas River tributary valleys.

Smoky Hill River drainage basin location map

Figure 1: Smoky Hill River drainage basin location map (select and click on maps to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Smoky Hill River drainage basin history

This essay provides highlights from a set of more detailed essays describing Smoky Hill River drainage basin landform origins based on topographic map evidence. The more detailed essays can be found under Smoky Hill River on this website’s sidebar category list. The Smoky Hill River originates near Cheyenne Wells in eastern Colorado and flows in an east direction into Kansas and joins the Republican River near Junction City in east central Kansas to form the east-oriented Kansas River. Major Smoky Hill River tributaries include the Saline River, which joins the Smoky Hill River near Salina, and the Solomon River, which joins the Smoky River between Salina and Abilene. At Junction City the Smoky Hill River joins the Republican River to form the east-oriented Kansas River. From Junction City the Kansas River flows in an east direction to join the Missouri River at Kansas City. The Big Blue River is the east and south-southeast oriented tributary joining the Kansas River near Manhattan. The Smoky Hill River is the southernmost of these east-oriented Kansas River tributaries, all which except the Big Blue River either originate or have major tributaries originate in the same relatively small region of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. While the Big Blue River today originates in south central Nebraska topographic map evidence suggests the Big Blue River valley once received water from the Platte River valley. The northeast-oriented South Platte River is located west and north of the Smoky Hill and Republican River headwaters area. In other words these major Kansas River tributaries appear to diverge from the same region in eastern Colorado and western Kansas and then to converge in the east-oriented Kansas River. Included in this Smoky Hill River drainage basin landform origins essay collection are the Saline River drainage basin landform origins essays and the Solomon River drainage basin landform origins essays. Essays describing Republican River drainage basin areas are found under Republican River on the sidebar category list and essays describing Big Blue River and Platte River drainage basin areas are found under Big Blue River and Platte River (NE). At this time essays for Colorado drainage divide areas have not yet been written, but are scheduled to be written in late 2011 or early 2012.

  • The northeast, east, and southeast-oriented Republican River drainage basin is located north of the Smoky Hill River drainage basin. In western Nebraska and eastern Colorado the northeast and east oriented South Platte River-Platte River drainage basin is located north and west of the Republican River drainage basin while in central and eastern Nebraska the Big Blue River drainage basin is north of the Republican River drainage basin and the Platte River is north of the Big Blue River drainage basin. The Kansas River and the Platte River are major east oriented Missouri River tributaries, with the Missouri River eventually flowing across the state of Missouri to join the south oriented Mississippi River. South of the Smoky Hill River drainage basin in eastern Colorado and western and central Kansas is the Arkansas River drainage basin. In figure 1 the Arkansas River can be seen flowing in an east-southeast direction from Pueblo, Colorado to near Dodge City, Kansas where it makes a significant jog to the northeast to reach Great Bend, Kansas. At Great Bend the Arkansas River turns to flow in a southeast direction to Wichita, Kansas and then in a south-southeast direction into Oklahoma. South and east of the figure 1 map area the Arkansas River flows across the state of Arkansas to join the south-oriented Mississippi River. In eastern Kansas a Arkansas River tributary is the south-southeast and south oriented Neosho River, which is located south of Topeka, Kansas. Between Topeka (which is located on the east-oriented Kansas River) and the Neosho River headwaters is the southeast-oriented Marais des Cygnes River (unlabeled on figure 1) which east of the figure 1 map area flows to the east- and northeast-oriented Osage River, which is a Missouri tributary. All valleys in which these modern-day rivers flow were eroded by immense south- and southeast-oriented melt water floods, which once flowed across the entire figure 1 map area and the origins of all valleys are interrelated.
  • The massive south and southeast-oriented melt water floods, which eroded the east-oriented Kansas River tributary drainage basins, were derived from a rapidly melting North American ice sheet. The ice sheet when it was fully developed was comparable in size if not larger than the present day Antarctic Ice Sheet. When fully developed the ice sheet had been thick, and had probably stood two kilometers or more above the surrounding non glaciated surface and probably had “roots” that extended as much as one kilometer or more below the surrounding non glaciated surface. The deep “hole” in which the ice sheet was located had been formed by deep glacial erosion under the ice sheet and by crustal warping caused by the ice sheet’s tremendous weight. Crustal warping resulting from the ice sheet’s weight not only caused down warping under the ice sheet, but also caused uplift of regions elsewhere on the continent including uplift of mountain ranges, such as the Rocky Mountains and what are today high plateau areas south and west of where the ice sheet once was located. These uplifted areas include western Kansas and eastern Colorado areas where the east-oriented Kansas River tributaries begin. Topographic map evidence presented in Smoky Hill River drainage basin essays and in essays for other river drainage basins suggests uplift of mountain ranges and other high elevation regions occurred as melt water floods flowed across those regions.
  • When the east-oriented Kansas River drainage basin, including the east-oriented Smoky Hill River drainage basin, was eroded ice sheet melting had progressed to the point (at least in the south) where only ice sheet “roots” were left. Immense ice marginal melt water floods had already significantly lowered landscapes surrounding the decaying ice sheet and also south of the melting ice sheet as flood waters flowed in whatever directions were possible to reach adjacent ocean basins. Initially the Rocky Mountains had not stood high above the ice marginal landscape and an immense south and southeast-oriented melt water river had flowed in a south and southeast direction along a route corresponding with the present day east-west continental divide. This huge “Great Divide River” was subsequently dismembered as uplift raised the Rocky Mountains and as deep valleys eroded headward from both east and west to capture the south and southeast-oriented melt water floods. “Great Divide River” dismemberment began in the south and progressed to the north and resulted in development of the present day east-west continental divide. The Kansas River drainage basin, including the Smoky Hill River drainage basin, was eroded during this “Great Divide River” dismemberment process. Prior to Smoky Hill River valley headward erosion the Arkansas River valley had eroded headward into Kansas and eastern Colorado and then into what were at that time emerging Rocky Mountains to capture south and southeast-oriented flood flow moving in the “Great Divide River”. Smoky Hill River valley headward erosion from what was then the newly eroded Kansas-Missouri River valley next beheaded south and southeast-oriented flood flow routes to what were then actively eroding south oriented Arkansas River tributary valleys. Subsequently headward erosion of Saline River, Solomon River, and ultimately Republican River valleys beheaded the south and southeast-oriented flood flow routes eroding the Smoky Hill River valley. Still later, Platte River-South Platte River valley headward erosion beheaded all flood flow routes to actively eroding Republican River tributary valleys and all flood flow to Kansas River drainage basin ended.

Figure 2: Slightly more detailed regional map (than figure 1) showing west end of Smoky Hill River drainage basin in Kit Carson and Cheyenne Counties, Colorado and Sherman and Wallace Counties, Kansas. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 2 provides a slightly more detailed regional map (than figure 1) of the Smoky Hill River drainage basin west end in Kit Carson and Cheyenne Counties, Colorado and Sherman and Wallace Counties, Kansas. The Smoky Hill River originates in Cheyenne County, Colorado a short distance west of Cheyenne Wells and then flows in an east-northeast and east direction across central Wallace County to the figure 2 east edge. South of the Smoky Hill River and originating also a short distance west of Cheyenne Wells is Ladder Creek, which flows parallel to the Smoky Hill River into Wallace County and then turns to flow in a southeast direction into Wichita County and then in an east direction to the figure 2 east edge (just north of southeast corner). East of the figure 2 map area Ladder Creek flows in an east direction before turning to flow in a north direction to join the Smoky Hill River. Also originating just south of the Smoky Hill River and Ladder Creek headwaters is southeast-oriented White Woman Creek. Southeast-oriented streams flowing to the figure 2 south edge in Greeley County are White Woman Creek headwaters. White Woman Creek flows in a south and east direction before eventually disappearing as a surface stream. East of where White Woman Creek disappears are east-oriented headwaters of Walnut Creek, with Walnut Creek flowing to the Arkansas River near Great Bend.  South-southeast oriented streams in the figure 2 southwest corner flow to the Arkansas River. Northeast-oriented streams flowing to the figure 2 north edge are Republican River tributaries and flow to the east-oriented Republican River in southern Nebraska (see figure 1). The east-northeast oriented stream in the Kit Carson County southeast corner, which in southern Sherman County turns to flow in a southeast direction to join the Smoky Hill River near Russell Springs, Kansas is the North Fork Smoky Hill River.

  • Drainage history for the figure 2 map area is best explained in the context of headward erosion of deep east, and northeast-oriented valleys into the region to capture massive southeast oriented flood water flowing across the entire figure 2 map area. Headward erosion of the Arkansas River valley (south of the figure 2 map area) first captured the southeast oriented flood water and southeast and south-southeast oriented tributary valleys began to erode headward from that newly eroded valley. Next headward erosion of the White Woman Creek valley entered the region and beheaded flood flow routes to the newly eroded Arkansas River valley. While today there is no surface stream linking White Woman Creek with the Arkansas River drainage basin, the orientation of White Woman Creek headwaters suggests the White Woman Creek valley originally eroded headward from the Arkansas River valley. If so headward erosion of the Ladder Creek and Smoky Hill River valleys next beheaded southeast oriented flood flow to what were then actively eroding White Woman Creek headwaters valleys. Unlike the White Woman Creek valley, which probably eroded headward from the Arkansas River valley, the Smoky Hill River valley eroded headward from the newly eroded Kansas-Missouri River valley and created what is today a significant drainage divide between the Missouri River drainage basin to the north and the Arkansas River drainage basin to the south. Subsequently headward erosion of the northeast-oriented Republican River tributary valleys beheaded all southeast- and south-oriented flood flow routes to what were then actively eroding Smoky Hill River headwaters valleys and to the south and south-southeast oriented Arkansas River tributary valleys seen in figure 2. Finally, while not seen in figure 2 (but visible in figure 1), South Platte River valley headward erosion beheaded all south- and southeast-oriented flood flow to the actively eroding northeast-oriented Republican River tributary valleys.

Figure 3: Slightly more detailed regional map (than figure 1) showing Smoky Hill River-Arkansas River drainage divide area in central Kansas. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 3 provides a more detailed regional map of the central Kansas region where major east-oriented Kansas River tributaries, which diverge in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, begin to converge to form the east-oriented Kansas River. Note in figure 1 the Saline and Solomon Rivers originate in western Kansas (just east of the figure 2 map area) and flow in generally east directions from western Kansas to central Kansas in the region between the east-oriented Smoky Hill River to the south and the east-oriented Republican River to the north. Figure 3 illustrates the region where the Saline and Solomon Rivers join the Smoky Hill River in central Kansas. Major rivers seen in figure 3 are the Arkansas River, which flows in a northeast direction from the figure 3 southwest corner to Great Bend and then turns to flow in a southeast direction to the figure 3 south edge in Rice County. Walnut Creek is the east-oriented tributary joining the Arkansas River at Great Bend. The Smoky Hill River flows in an east direction from the figure 3 west edge across southern Russell County and then in a southeast direction across Ellsworth County and into northern McPherson County. In north central McPherson County the Smoky Hill River turns to flow in a north direction to Salina in Saline County and then in an east-northeast direction to the figure 3 east edge. The Saline River flows in an east direction from the figure 3 west edge to Wilson Lake in eastern Russell County and then in an east-northeast and east-southeast direction across Lincoln County and into Saline County where it joins the Smoky Hill River east of Salina. The Solomon River flows in southeast direction from the figure 3 north edge (east half) to join the Smoky Hill River at Solomon (on the Saline-Dickey County border near the Saline County northeast corner). Saline and Solomon River headwaters are located adjacent to headwaters of major Smoky Hill River tributaries, suggesting that at one time flood waters flowed simultaneously in an east direction in the diverging Smoky Hill, Saline, and Solomon River valleys only to converge again in the figure 3 map area.

  • The figure 3 map, even with its limited detail and lack of topographic feature, provides evidence of the south and southeast-oriented flood flow that was captured by headward erosion of the east-oriented Arkansas, Smoky Hill, Saline River, and Solomon River valleys. Beginning in the south note southeast-oriented Crow Creek in Rice County. Crow Creek is an Arkansas River tributary and note the south-oriented Crow Creek tributaries and also south-oriented Arkansas River tributaries flowing to the figure 3 south edge in McPherson County. The south-oriented Crow Creek and other Arkansas River tributary valleys eroded headward along south-oriented flood flow routes, which prior to Smoky Hill River valley headward erosion were eroding headward from what was then the newly eroded Arkansas River valley (and Crow Creek valley). Headward erosion of the east-oriented Smoky Hill River valley beheaded the multiple south-oriented flood flow routes to the actively eroding Arkansas River tributary valleys. Flood waters on north ends of the beheaded flood flow routes reversed flow direction to erode the north-oriented Smoky Hill River tributary valleys. Because flood flow routes were beheaded in sequence from east to west, and one at a time, and because flood flow routes were interconnected, reversed flood flow on a newly beheaded flood flow route could capture flood waters from flood flow routes further to the west. The north-oriented Smoky Hill River valley segment in McPherson and Saline Counties was eroded by reversed flood flow on a newly beheaded flood flow which captured significant flood flow from flood flow routes further to the west. The process was repeated with headward erosion of the Saline River valley and then again with headward erosion of the Solomon River valley. While not visible in figure 3 the process was also repeated with headward erosion of the Republican River valley and with headward erosion of other east-oriented valleys further to the north (e.g. Platte River valley).

Figure 4: Slightly more detailed regional map (than figure 1) showing convergence of Saline, Solomon, Republican, and Smoky Hill Rivers to form east-oriented Kansas River. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 4 duplicates some of the figure 3 map area and also shows the region east and slightly north of the figure 3 map area where the Republican River joins the Smoky Hill River to form the northeast and east oriented Kansas River. The Smoky Hill River flows in an east-northeast direction from Salina (in figure 4 west center area) to Junction City in Geary County where it joins the south-southeast oriented Republican River to form the Kansas River. From Junction City the Kansas River flows in a northeast direction to Manhattan, where it is joined by the southeast-oriented Big Blue River, and then flows in an east direction to the figure 4 east edge. East of the figure 4 map area the Kansas River flows to Kansas City where it joins the Missouri River. Note in figure 1 the Big Blue River headwaters in south central Nebraska are oriented in an east direction and then turn to flow in a south-southeast and southeast direction to flow into Kansas and to join the Kansas River. East-oriented Big Blue River headwaters originate on the edge of a northeast-oriented Platte River valley segment, suggesting headward erosion of the northeast-oriented Platte River valley segment beheaded east and southeast-oriented flood flow routes to what were once actively eroding east-oriented Big Blue River headwaters valleys. Note also how the southeast-oriented Big Blue River segment roughly parallels the south-southeast oriented Republican River segment and the southeast-oriented Solomon River segment and how each of these southeast and south-southeast oriented valleys have significant east-oriented valley segments further to west. The east- and southeast-oriented Kansas River tributary valleys converging in the figure 4 map area are relics of what was once a giant east-oriented anastomosing channel complex, which eroded headward from the newly eroded Missouri River valley to capture south- and southeast-oriented flood flow which was flowing in an equally large, if not larger, south- and southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex. As already noted in the figure 3 discussion the south- and southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex was moving flood waters to what were then actively eroding Arkansas River tributary valleys.

  • Evidence for the south and southeast oriented anastomosing channel complex is found in the southeast and south oriented Arkansas River tributaries located near the figure 4 south edge. The east-oriented Cottonwood River joins the southeast oriented Neosho River near Emporia in the figure 4 southeast corner with the Neosho River flowing in a southeast and south direction to eventually join the Arkansas River (see figure 1). Note how Cottonwood River tributaries are oriented in south and southeast directions. Also note how Smoky Hill and Kansas River tributaries are oriented in north and northwest directions. As previously mentioned the southeast and south oriented Neosho River (and Cottonwood River) headwaters and tributary valleys were eroded headward along south and southeast oriented flood flow routes. Headward erosion of the Kansas River and Smoky Hill River valleys beheaded the south and southeast oriented flood flow routes and flood waters on north ends of beheaded flood flow routes reversed flow direction to erode the north and northwest-oriented Smoky Hill and Kansas River tributary valleys. The southeast and south-southeast oriented Big Blue River, Republican River, and Solomon River valley segments (along with other south, southeast, and south-southeast oriented Smoky Hill and Kansas River tributary valleys were eroded headward along multiple south, south-southeast, and southeast oriented flood flow routes. The east-oriented Smoky Hill River valley then eroded headward slightly in advance of the east-oriented Saline River valley, which eroded headward slightly in advance of the east-oriented Solomon River valley, which eroded headward slightly in advance of the east-oriented Republican River valley, which eroded headward slightly in advance of the east-oriented Big Blue River-Platte River valley. Headward erosion of northeast-oriented Republican River tributary valleys beheaded all flood flow routes to the actively eroding Smoky Hill, Saline, and Solomon River valleys and their tributary valleys and subsequently headward erosion of the South Platte River valley beheaded all southeast and south oriented flood flow routes to the actively eroding Republican River tributary valleys (see figures 1 and 2).
  • Smoky Hill River drainage basin landform origins essays, including Saline River drainage basin essays and Solomon River drainage basin essays, along with Republican River drainage basin essays, Big Blue River drainage basin essays, and Nebraska Platte River drainage basin essays illustrate and discuss detailed topographic map evidence supporting the above melt water flood erosion history interpretation. In addition to valley orientations seen in figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this overview essay topographic maps in the detailed essays illustrate numerous north-south oriented through valleys eroded across the present day east-west oriented drainage divides. These through valleys link north-oriented tributary valleys draining to the east-oriented drainage basin immediately to the north with south-oriented tributary valleys draining to the east-oriented drainage basin immediately to the south. The through valleys are evidence of the multiple south-oriented flood flow channels that existed prior to headward erosion of the deeper east-oriented Kansas River tributary valleys. Essays for Colorado drainage divide areas have not yet been written, although they are scheduled to be written in 2011 or early 2012. .

Introduction to Missouri River drainage basin research project essay series

  • This Smoky Hill 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 collection in this series relates to a specific Missouri River tributary, tributary to a present day Missouri River tributary, or a present day Missouri River valley segment. Each 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 Solomon 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 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 detailed topographic 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 used here were created using National Geographic Society 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.

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