At the heart of interpreting the history of Earth surface evolution preserved in the rock record is distinguishing environmental (allogenic) forcing from internally generated (autogenic) "noise." Allogenic deposits classically have been recognized by their cyclic nature, which apparently results from periodic changes in base level, sediment supply, or tectonics. Autogenic deposits, which are quite variable in their origin and scale, are caused by the nonlinearity of sediment transport and might be expected to have a random or scale-free (fractal) signature. Here we describe a robust mechanism that generates cyclic deposits by an autogenic process in experimental fan deltas. Sheet flow over the fan surface induces deposition and an increase in fluvial slope and curvature to a point where the surface geometry is susceptible to a channelization instability, similar to channel initiation on hillslopes. Channelized flow results in incision and degrading of the fan surface to a lower slope, releasing a pulse of sediment that pushes the shoreline forward. Sheet flow resumes once the surface is regraded, and the cycle repeats in a surprisingly periodic fashion to produce cyclic foreset accretions. We use simple scaling and a one-dimensional fan evolution model to (1) demonstrate how time-varying flow width can cause pulses in sediment discharge at the shoreline in agreement with experiments and (2) reinterpret cyclic deposits reported in the field. Alternating sheet and channelized flows are known to operate on noncohesive fans in nature. Our results suggest that rather than reflecting variation in environmental forcing, many observed cyclic sedimentation packages may be a signature of the autogenic "pulse" of fan deltas under calm environmental conditions.
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