James River drainage basin landform origins, North and South Dakota, USA, overview essay

Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

This overview essay provides highlights from more detailed essays using topographic map evidence to interpret James River drainage basin landform origins. The detailed essays can be found under James River on this website’s sidebar category list. The James River originates on the Missouri Coteau northeast edge in central North Dakota and, after flowing down the northeast facing Missouri Escarpment slope and for short distances in north and east directions, turns to flow in southeast and south directions on the lowland floor east of the Missouri Escarpment to eventually reach the southeast oriented Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota. In North Dakota, west of north-oriented James River segments, north of east-oriented James River segments, and east of the southeast and south oriented James River, is the parallel Sheyenne River, which in southeast North Dakota turns to flow in a northeast direction to the north-oriented Red River (and eventually to Hudson Bay). The north-south continental divide is located between the parallel James and Sheyenne Rivers. In South Dakota, east of the James River lowland floor is the west-facing Prairie Coteau Escarpment and east of the escarpment is the Prairie Coteau, an upland region covered by glacial moraines. Everywhere west of the James River is the northeast and east-facing Missouri Escarpment, the Missouri Coteau, and the south and southeast oriented Missouri River. The Missouri Coteau is an upland region of glacial moraines located between the Missouri Escarpment and the Missouri River. The James River drainage basin was initiated by an immense southeast and south oriented melt water river flowing on the surface of a thick and rapidly melting North American ice sheet. The melt water river eventually sliced a huge ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon into the thick ice sheet surface, which detached the ice sheet’s west and southwest margin. The northeast and east-facing Missouri Escarpment is what remains of the ice-walled canyon’s southwest and west wall and the west-facing Prairie Coteau Escarpment is what remains of the canyon’s east wall. The present day north-south continental divide developed when ice sheet melting progressed to the point that south-oriented melt water flood flow in the present day Red River valley was reversed to flow north and captured what had been the south-oriented flood flow in the present day Sheyenne River drainage basin.

Figure 1: North and South Dakota James River drainage basin (select and click on map to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

James River drainage basin drainage history

This James River drainage basin landform origins overview essay provides highlights from more detailed essays using topographic map evidence to illustrate and describe James River drainage basin landform origins in the states of North and South Dakota. The detailed essays can be under James River on this website’s sidebar category list. The James River, which can be seen in figure 1 above, originates on the Missouri Coteau northeast edge in central North Dakota and, after flowing down the northeast facing Missouri Escarpment slope and flowing for short distances in north and east directions, turns to flow in southeast and south directions on the lowland floor east of the Missouri Escarpment to eventually reach the southeast oriented Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota. The south-oriented James River in South Dakota is flowing on the floor of a broad lowland located between the Missouri Coteau and east facing Missouri Escarpment to the west and the Prairie Coteau and the west-facing Prairie Coteau Escarpment to the east. In North Dakota, west of north-oriented James River segments, north of east oriented James River segments, and east of the southeast and south-oriented James River, is the Sheyenne River, which in southeast North Dakota turns to flow in a northeast direction to the north-oriented Red River (and eventually to Hudson Bay). The north-south continental divide is located between the roughly parallel James and Sheyenne Rivers. The Missouri Coteau in North and South Dakota is a region 40 to 100 kilometers in width located between the Missouri River valley to the west and southwest and the east and northeast-facing Missouri Escarpment to the east and northeast. The southeast and south-oriented lowland drained by the south-oriented James River continues in a northwest direction along the Missouri Escarpment base and can be traced in a northwest direction across north central and northwest North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan and in north central North Dakota is drained by the southeast, northeast, northwest, and north-oriented Souris River, which is included in the Hudson Bay drainage basin. The southwest-facing Turtle Mountain Escarpment forms the northeast lowland margin near the North Dakota-Manitoba border and in southern Saskatchewan the Moose Mountains upland forms the lowland’s northeast margin. The Missouri Coteau, Prairie Coteau, Turtle Mountain upland surface, and Moose Mountain upland surface all are characterized by similar glacial moraine landscapes, which suggests the southeast and south-oriented lowland now drained by the Souris River and James River was carved as a large southeast and south-oriented valley into the ice sheet mass which melted to deposit those  glacial moraines.

Figure 2: James River headwaters area in central North Dakota. Northeast-facing Missouri Escarpment can be seen in figure 2 west half and Missouri Coteau is the upland region south and west of the Escarpment. The James River flows in a northeast direction from southwest corner area and then north to the figure 2 north edge where it turns to flow in a southeast, east, and north direction to the figure 2 northeast corner area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 2 uses reduced size maps to illustrate the James River headwaters in central North Dakota. The James River flows from the figure 2 southeast corner area in a northeast and north direction to the figure 2 north edge where it turns to flow in a southeast, east and north direction to the figure 2 northeast corner area. The Missouri Escarpment is the northeast facing escarpment seen in the figure 2 west half and south and west of the Missouri Escarpment is the Missouri Coteau. The Missouri Escarpment is a northeast and east-facing escarpment, which in North and South Dakota roughly parallels the Missouri River route. Between the northeast and east-facing Missouri Escarpment and the southeast and south-oriented Missouri River is the 40-100 kilometer wide Missouri Coteau, which as seen in the figure 2 southwest corner area is characterized by easy to recognize glacial moraine materials. Note how in figure 2 the James River originates in what appears to be a northeast-oriented indentation or valley eroded into the northeast-facing Missouri Escarpment surface, although the valley is at least partially filled with glacial moraine materials. The James River today originates in the glacial moraines near the Missouri Coteau northeast edge and flows in a northeast direction down the Missouri Escarpment slope (adjacent to the northeast-oriented indentation in the Missouri Escarpment slope) and then turns to flow in a north, southeast, and east direction across the lowland floor located northeast of the Missouri Escarpment. Elevations on the lowland floor in the figure 2 map area are generally less than 500 meters, which is significantly lower than the 600-meter plus high surface elevations into which the Missouri River valley has been eroded west of the Missouri Coteau. In other words, the lowland floor at the base of the Missouri Escarpment is approximately 100 meters lower than the surface into which the Missouri River valley has been eroded and everywhere between the Missouri River valley and the Missouri Escarpment is the Missouri Coteau, which is a region covered by poorly drained glacial moraine materials.

Figure 3: Sheyenne River-James River relationship in central North Dakota. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 3 illustrates the Sheyenne River and James River routes on the floor of the lowland north and east of the Missouri Escarpment and includes overlap areas with figure 2. Harvey is the town located near the figure 3 west center edge. The northeast, east-northeast, north, east, and southeast oriented river flowing through  Harvey is the Sheyenne River, which originates along the northeast edge of the Missouri Coteau near the James River point of origin. North, southeast, east, and north oriented James River segments seen in figure 2 can be seen east and south of the Sheyenne River in figure 3. Note how near the figure 3 east center edge the James River turns to flow in an east direction to the east edge. Also note the northwest-southeast oriented through valley in the figure 3 center area linking the Sheyenne River valley with the James River valley. What is remarkable about the Sheyenne and James Rivers in figure 3 is the two rivers flow to opposite sides of the North American continent and the north-south continental divide is located between the two river valleys. These two rivers are also flowing across a lowland at the Missouri Escarpment base which further to the northwest is drained by the southeast, northeast, northwest, and north oriented Souris River. Further, these two rivers east of the figure 3 map area turn to flow parallel to each other in a south direction almost to the North Dakota-South Dakota border where the Sheyenne River makes a U-turn to flow in a northeast direction to join the north-oriented Red River while the James River continues to flow in a south direction in the lowland east of the Missouri Escarpment to join the Missouri River in southern South Dakota. Why is the lowland in figure 3 located northeast and east of the Missouri Escarpment drained by two rivers, originating in the same general region and then flowing adjacent to and parallel to each other for almost 200 kilometers, yet which then flow in completely opposite directions. To answer the question we need to understand the Missouri Escarpment origin and the origin of the southeast and south-oriented lowland at the Missouri Escarpment base.

Figure 4: Missouri Escarpment and James River valley south of Carrington, North Dakota. James River flows south along the figure 4 east edge. The south-southeast oriented stream flowing along the Missouri Escarpment base is Pipestone Creek, which is a James River tributary. The parallel and south-oriented Sheyenne River in this region is located about 50 kilometers east of the south-oriented James River. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

The Missouri Escarpment history began with development of a North American ice sheet comparable in size to the present day Antarctic Ice Sheet, if not larger. The ice sheet was thick, probably several kilometers thick, and was located in a deep “hole”, formed by a combination of deep glacial erosion and crustal warping caused by the ice sheet weight. When it at its maximum size the ice sheet stood high above the pre-glacial surface, but also had roots that extended well below the pre-glacial surface, which no longer exists. The pre-glacial surface under the ice sheet was completely destroyed by deep glacial erosion and the pre-glacial surface adjacent to the ice sheet and elsewhere on the North American continent was deeply eroded by deep melt water flood erosion and was also probably significantly altered by crustal warping caused by the thick North American ice sheet presence. The Missouri Escarpment history does not really begin until the ice sheet was rapidly melting and had melted to the point it no longer stood high above the surrounding non-glaciated surface, which had probably already been significantly lowered by deep melt water erosion. At that time immense melt water rivers were flowing in a southeast direction along the ice sheet’s southwest margin and were deeply eroding the region between the present day Pine Ridge Escarpment in South Dakota and the ice sheet margin. Also at that time immense southeast and south-oriented supra-glacial melt water rivers were flowing across the ice sheet surface to the ice sheet’s southern margin and were carving giant ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyons. A huge southeast and south-oriented ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon was carved east of the present day Missouri River valley in North and South Dakota and the Missouri Escarpment is what remains of that giant canyon’s west and southwest wall. The floor of that huge ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon was significantly lower in elevation than the bedrock surface south and west of the decaying ice sheet and separating the immense southeast-oriented ice marginal floods from the much deeper ice-walled and bedrock floored canyon floor was the decaying and detached ice sheet southwest margin.

Figure 5: Sheyenne River U-turn near Lisbon, North Dakota, where the Sheyenne River after flowing parallel to the south-oriented James River turns to flow in a north and northeast direction to join the north-oriented Red River while the James River to the west continues in a south direction to join the Missouri River. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Why does the southeast oriented Souris River, which flows along the Missouri Escarpment base, make an abrupt U-turn and flow north (see figure 1) and why does the Sheyenne River, which for a short distance south and east of the Souris River loop flows along the Missouri Escarpment base before flowing across the lowland surface and then turning to flow in a south direction parallel to the south-oriented James River also make an abrupt U-turn so as to flow north (see figures 1 and 5)? What happened was the large south-oriented melt water rivers in those deep ice-walled canyons were captured and diverted north and east as new and lower outlets to the present day Saint Lawrence River drainage basin and later to what is now Hudson Bay opened up. Southeast and south-oriented melt water floods flowing in the huge ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon now drained at the south end by the James River was first captured in southeast North Dakota and diverted north into an adjacent ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon, the west wall of which is now preserved as the Pembina Escarpment along the west edge of the present-day north-oriented Red River Valley. South-oriented melt water flood flow in the Red River Valley ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon had been reversed by the opening up of east-oriented routes to the Saint Lawrence River drainage basin and later by opening up of flood flow routes to Hudson Bay. The south-oriented Red River Valley ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon and the southeast and south-oriented ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon which eroded the Missouri Escarpment intersected in southeast North Dakota. The reversal of flood flow in the Red River Valley ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon captured south-oriented melt water flood flow in the western ice-walled-and bedrock-floored canyon. The Sheyenne River U-turn in southeast North Dakota and illustrated in figure 5 provides evidence of this capture and reversal of an immense south-oriented flood. Later the southeast-oriented oriented flood flow in the Missouri Escarpment ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon was captured and reversed when an ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon was carved north of the Turtle Mountains.

  • As the ice sheet’s southwest margin continued to decay the southeast-oriented ice marginal floods, which were flowing at a higher elevation than the deep ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon floor to the northeast and east, began to breach the ice barrier and to flow into the giant Missouri Escarpment ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon. Evidence for those breaches is today located along the Missouri Escarpment where deep valleys have been eroded into the Missouri Escarpment slope. The James River and Sheyenne River originate near one of those valleys (see figure 2). The breaches in the decaying ice sheet southwest margin ice barrier triggered the headward erosion of deep northeast and north oriented valleys which captured the southeast-oriented ice-marginal floods as deep north, northeast, and east-oriented valleys eroded headward across the region south and west of the ice sheet margin. On figure 1 note how the Cheyenne River, Moreau River, Cannonball River, Heart River, and Knife River all flow in southeast and then northeast directions to reach the south-oriented Missouri River and the Little Missouri River flows in a north direction before turning to flow in an east direction to reach the Missouri River (see essays found under North Dakota Missouri Slope, SD Grand River, Moreau River, Cheyenne River, and Little Missouri River). Today those deep valleys, which were eroded at the locations of major ice sheet margin breaches, are partially filled with glacial deposits, although it is possible to trace at least some of those valleys from the present day Missouri River valley to the Missouri Escarpment and sometimes even further.

Figure 6: North end of Prairie Coteau upland south of Sheyenne River U-turn and east of James River valley. Note how the Prairie Coteau is bounded by a west-facing escarpment, which south of figure 6 marks the east margin of the James River drainage basin and by a northeast-facing escarpment which drains to the southeast and north-oriented Minnesota River, which is a Mississippi River tributary. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

South of the Sheyenne River U-turn the present day James River valley is bounded on the east by west-facing Prairie Coteau escarpment. Figure 6 illustrates the Prairie Coteau north end where the northeast-facing Prairie Coteau and the west-facing Prairie Coteau escarpments meet. Note the west to east oriented North Dakota-South Dakota state line running across the tip of the arrow shaped Prairie Coteau upland. Prior to the reversal of flood flow in the Red River Valley ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon flood waters in that canyon merged with flood waters in the Missouri Escarpment bounded ice-walled and bedrock-floored ice walled canyon where the two canyons intersected in southeast North Dakota and then separated again to flow on opposite sides of what was then a detached and decaying ice sheet remnant located where the Prairie Coteau is presently located. Flood waters moving east of the Prairie Coteau ice mass flowed in what remained of an ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon located where the present day southeast-oriented Minnesota River valley is now located. Flood waters flowing west of the Prairie Coteau ice mass flowed in what is now the broad south-oriented James River valley. West of the broad James River valley was the canyon’s west wall, which is now preserved as the east-facing Missouri Escarpment, and ice sheet’s detached and decaying southwest margin. The Prairie Coteau region south of the figure 6 map is partially drained by the south-oriented Big Sioux River, which flows to join the south-oriented Missouri River (see essays under Big Sioux River on sidebar category list). Figure 7 below illustrates the Missouri Escarpment and Missouri Coteau at the west edge of broad south-oriented James River valley west of the figure 6 map area. Ellendale, North Dakota is the town located near the figure 7 north edge and the west to east oriented North Dakota-South Dakota state line is located about four miles south of Ellendale (secondary roads are located on section lines, which are one mile apart). The south-oriented river with the reservoir is the Elm River, which is a tributary of the south-oriented James River, which is located east of the figure 7 map area and west of the figure 6 map area.

Figure 7: West margin of James River lowland west of the figure 6 map area showing east-facing Missouri Escarpment and the Missouri Coteau upland surface west of the Missouri Escarpment crest. The west-to east oriented North Dakota-South Dakota state line is located about 5 miles south of the north edge. The south-oriented James River is located east of the figure 7 map area and west of the figure 6 map area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Detailed James River drainage basin essays and essays from adjacent drainage basins illustrate and discuss topographic map evidence for deep northeast and east-oriented valleys, which were eroded across the detached and decaying ice sheet’s southwest margin when immense southeast-oriented melt water floods breached the decaying Missouri Coteau ice barrier and flowed to the lower elevation Missouri Escarpment ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon floor. Today valleys eroded across the Missouri Coteau region are filled or at least partially filled with what on topographic maps appear to be glacially deposited sediments. Also today the south-oriented James River parallels the south-oriented Sheyenne River and then continues to flow south while the Sheyenne River turns to flow north. Why are the deep northeast and east-oriented valleys, which were eroded at the ice sheet margin breach locations, now filled with glacial deposits? And why was south-oriented drainage restored in what is today the North Dakota James River drainage basin and the James River drainage basin in northern South Dakota (where previously flood waters in those region had been captured and diverted north)? To answer those questions think about what the immense south-oriented melt water floods were doing when they were captured and diverted north. Those massive south-oriented melt water floods had been flowing to the Gulf of Mexico and forcing warm Gulf of Mexico waters into the Atlantic Ocean, where the warm waters then moved north to warm Northern Hemisphere climates. When those immense south-oriented floods were captured so as to flow across what had been the ice sheet’s floor in northward directions the flood waters then began to displace what were cold waters, which then moved into the Atlantic Ocean and then south to cool the North Hemisphere climate.

  • The resulting climatic change halted the ice sheet’s rapid melting and north-oriented flood waters located on the ice sheet floor began to freeze, creating what for all practical purposes was a thin ice sheet. Incorporated into that new thin ice sheet were the isolated and rejuvenated thick ice sheet remnants, including remnants of what had been the decaying ice sheet’s southwest margin ice barrier. The resulting thin ice sheet blocked the breaches through the ice sheet’s southwest margin, which had the effect of damming the newly eroded and deep northeast oriented valleys at the ice sheet’s southwest margin. Water spilled from one valley segment to another along the ice sheet margin, which resulted in headward erosion of the present day North Dakota Missouri River valley. Unlike the previous thick ice sheet, the new thin ice sheet did not deeply erode the underlying landscape, although it did alter some surface features. Because the new thin ice sheet ice between former thick ice sheet remnants was formed by the freezing of north-oriented flood water, the frozen flood water areas tended to be wet based, which meant large slabs of ice could easily move and sometimes carry underlying slabs of frozen bedrock with them. Such movements of wet based frozen flood water, which also included frozen slabs of the underlying bedrock, combined with expansion of the rejuvenated thick ice sheet remnants along the ice sheet’s southwest margin, partially filled the northeast and east-oriented valleys, which had previously been eroded across the ice sheet’s southwest margin. The thin ice sheet did eventually melt, with areas between the rejuvenated thick ice sheet remnants melting first. During the thin ice sheet there were additional flood events, although on a smaller scale than the melt water floods associated with the thick ice sheet rapid melt down. One major thin ice sheet flood event resulted in large quantities of flood water moving southeast and south in the lowland located at the Missouri Escarpment base. The western half of that flood continued south into South Dakota to reach the Missouri River and eroded the present day James River and tributary channels on the floor of the previously eroded ice-walled and bedrock canyon. The eastern half of that thin ice sheet flood was captured by the north-oriented Red River valley route and the present day Sheyenne River and tributary channels were eroded into the floor the previously eroded ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon. The thick ice sheet remnants melted more slowly than the frozen flood waters located between them and deposited large quantities of glacially transported debris as they melted to create the present day Missouri Coteau, Prairie Coteau, and other similar northern plains glacial deposits.

Introduction to Missouri River drainage basin research project essay series

  • This James 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 James River drainage basin landform origins 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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