Reconstruction of active channel geometry from fluvial strata is critical to constrain the water and sediment fluxes in ancient terrestrial landscapes. Robust methods—grounded in extensive field observations, numerical simulations, and physical experiments—exist for estimating the bankfull flow depth and channel-bed slope from preserved deposits; however, we lack similar tools to quantify bankfull channel widths. We combined high-resolution lidar data from 134 meander bends across 11 rivers that span over two orders of magnitude in size to develop a robust, empirical relation between the bankfull channel width and channel-bar clinoform width (relict stratigraphic surfaces of bank-attached channel bars). We parameterized the bar cross-sectional shape using a two-parameter sigmoid, defining bar width as the cross-stream distance between 95% of the asymptotes of the fit sigmoid. We combined this objective definition of the bar width with Bayesian linear regression analysis to show that the measured bankfull flow width is 2.34 ± 0.13 times the channel-bar width. We validated our model using field measurements of channel-bar and bankfull flow widths of meandering rivers that span all climate zones (R2 = 0.79) and concurrent measurements of channel-bar clinoform width and mud-plug width in fluvial strata (R2 = 0.80). We also show that the transverse bed slopes of bars are inversely correlated with bend curvature, consistent with theory. Results provide a simple, usable metric to derive paleochannel width from preserved bar clinoforms.
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