Cheyenne Bottoms Geomorphology

(Title image from Aber, 2004)


Geomorphology of Cheyenne Bottoms
A Geomorphologic Inquiry

Field Geomorphology
Zac Andereck


Table of Contents
Abstract Cheyenne Bottoms
Basin Development Hypothesis's Stream Drainage Reconstruction
Conclusions   References


Cheyenne Bottoms is a premier wetlands environment in Kansas, located in east central Barton County, Kansas. The Bottoms is an elliptical shaped basin that covers approximately 64 square miles (166 km2) surrounded by lower Cretaceous bedrock to the north, west, and south. The east and southeast sides of the Bottoms is comprised of alluvial deposits. The creation of this basin structure is one of the most disputed geomorphologic anomalies in Kansas. The purpose of Emporia States 2004 ES 546 Field Geomorphology class was to explore this debate along with attempting to recreate original drainage patterns of the upper Bottoms, particularly the area within the Nature Conservancy before manmade alterations were present.

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Cheyenne Bottoms

Cheyenne Bottoms is located in Barton County, Kansas near Great Bend and Hoisington. The majority of the Bottoms is located in Township 18 South, Ranges 12 and 13 West. Part of the Bottoms is located in parts of Townships 17, 18, and 19 South, and Ranges 11, 12, 13, and 14 West. To the north, west and south, Cretaceous bedrock rise to nearly 100 feet (30 meters) above the floor of the basin with alluvial dunes rising to nearly the same height to the northeast (Bayne, 1977). The map below shows the two primary streams that enter the Bottoms on the northwest side, or the upstream side of the Bottoms. These are Blood Creek and Deception Creek.

Cheyenne Bottoms is a vital wetland for many migratory shore birds and waterfowl during their fall migration to wintering grounds in the south.. Some consider the Bottoms as one of the most important stops for migratory birds in all of North America. Being of great importance it is on the Ramsar list of internationally important wetlands.

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Basin Development

The development of the basin  is highly disputed with many hypothesis's and ideas being presented to answer the question. Four main hypothesis's have been formed, which include a meteor impact, dissolution of evaporites with land subsidence, structural movement, and stream capture. 

The first hypothesis is of a meteor impact. This hypothesis is no longer accepted as a creation mechanism as there have been no remnants of the meteorite in and around the crater.

The second hypothesis is that of the dissolution of an evaporite, which  leads to the subsidence of the land. In this case the evaporite in question is halite, or rock salt. According to Bulletin 214 written in 1978 by Walters in the Kansas Geological Survey Bulletin Series, he states that "the only evaporite sequence thick enough to support the amount of dissolution to cause the Cheyenne Bottoms is the Hutchinson Salt Member of the Wellington Formation." The Hutchinson Salt has been mined for over 120 years in the areas around Hutchinson. With the discovery of oil in gas in Kansas, land subsidence caused by salt dissolution became a great problem in many of the large oil fields when it was found that an inadequately drilled well, or a faulty well casing, can lead to the introduction of groundwater into the salt formation, leading to the dissolution of the salt. This manmade, or man induced dissolution of the salt has led to large sink holes developing near many oil wells and salt mines.

Sinkhole that developed near the Cargill Salt Plant near Hutchinson Kansas. Image was taken on October 21, 1974. The three lines crossing the hole are railroad tracks.

(Image taken from KGS Bulletin 214, 1978)

A third hypothesis is of structural movement due to tectonic activity. One purposed time frame of crustal movement was presented by Bayne (1977), in which he states that the structural movement occurred between the early Late Cretaceous time and the latest Pliocene time, with some tilting occurring during the later portion. He also noted that this is  known to be about the time that intrusive rocks and Kimberlite pipes were intruded in eastern and southeastern Kansas, though no direct relationship was concluded, just the time period. The mechanism of this movement is not exactly known, but through drilling log analysis, the structural contours of some subsurface formations indicate a movement, and possible development of a basin.

Contour map showing the top of the Hutchinson Salt Member of the Wellington Formation underneath Cheyenne Bottoms. Note the depression near the center of the image.

(Image taken from KGS Bulletin 211, 1977)

Contour map showing the bottom of the Hutchinson Salt Member of the Wellington Formation underneath Cheyenne Bottoms. Note the depression near the center of the image.

(Image taken from KGS Bulletin 211, 1977)

Contour map showing the bottom of the Winfield Limestone underneath Cheyenne Bottoms. Note the depression near the center of the image.

(Image taken from KGS Bulletin 211, 1977)

The forth and final hypothesis to the genesis of Cheyenne Bottoms is a stream capture that occurred on the Smokey Hill River during the Pleistocene, particularly the Nebraskan Stage. Drainage from the upper Smokey Hill River basin once flow through an old channel in Barton County, named the Galatia channel. During the Kansan Stage of ice development, an influx of water caused the upper Kansas River to erode headward and captured the upper Smokey Hill drainage (Bayne and Fent, 1963). Once the stream was captured, the volume of water flowing through the channel decreased causing the water to loose its carrying capacity. This led to infilling of sedimentation in the river channel. The configuration of the bedrock surface indicates the presence of this channel through the area of Cheyenne Bottoms.

Stages of stream capture by the Kansas River during the Pleistocene. The abandoned Galatia channel is marked by a dashed red and black line

(Image taken from Bayne and Fent 1963)

Configuration of the bedrock surface in the area of Cheyenne Bottoms. Note the red dashed line that runs from southeast to the northwest through the valley. This is the hypothetical flow channel of the Smokey Hill river.

(Image taken from KGS Bulletin 211, 1977)

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Stream Drainage Reconstruction

The drainage of Deception and Blood Creek were the main focus of the field trip to Cheyenne Bottoms in the fall of 2004 for ES 546. The project was to reconstruct pre-development drainage patterns of Blood and Deception Creek within the Nature Conservancy area of Cheyenne Bottoms. The working hypothesis was that the two creeks create a birdfoot delta complex in the area of the Nature Conservancy.

Mississippi River birdfoot delta complex in the Golf of Mexico.

(Image courtesy of USGS)

The drainage complex was developed from several methods that were utilized on the field trip. The first was looking for low  areas that might have been old drainage ditches while walking and driving around the area. Next, blimp and kite aerial photography were utilized  to get a view of the marsh complexes created by the two creeks.

Using the data collected on the field trip, the drainage patterns for Blood Creek and Deception Creek were created by using a FSA National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) that was obtained from DASC . The image was brought into Photoshop 8 and analyzed and the interpretations overlaid onto the image. The thick black lines represent current drainage patterns within the stream complexes. The red lines are  recreated, pre-development drainage patterns that were visible from the aforementioned methods. The blue lines represent an even earlier set of drainage patterns that might have flowed through the Bottoms. These are just hypothetical flow patterns, but help recreate the fan shaped lob on the eastern edge of the photograph.

Reconstructed drainage patterns of Blood and Deception Creek.

(Image courtesy of DASC, manipulated by Z.D. Andereck)

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After analyzing the image of the drainage patterns of Blood and Deception Creek, the image shows that the classic birdfoot delta is definitely present in this area of the Bottoms. The fan shaped lobes can be seen throughout the marshes, so it can only be assumed that the two creeks are creating inland birdfoot deltas reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta complex.

The creation of the basin, is not solved so easily. Four hypothesis's were presented earlier, each with an explanation of how the basin was developed. For the sake of argument, each one proves its own mechanism for development, but each one also has its loop holes. It was noted that the meteor impact was ruled out, so that leaves the remaining three for interpretation. The author believes that the bottoms were created in roughly a five step process.

  1. Structural movement causes a depression to form. Subsurface analysis proves that there is a substantial depression through most of the stratigraphic sequence (See images above)
  2. The upper drainage of the Smokey Hill erodes into a valley created by the structural movement, deepening the valley.
  3. The Kansas River captures the Smokey Hill and the amount of water flowing through the channel decreases.
  4. The decrease in water allows for sedimentation to occur, possibly blocking some flow out of the "Bottoms" on the southeast side of the valley. Wind action may aide in depositing more alluvium in this area, creating a large depositional basin..
  5. Blood and Deception Creek, the two main sources of sedimentation, and start to create the birdfoot delta network within the bottoms.

The absence of the dissolution of salt as a major contributing factor is a result of looking at geological reports along with the evidence presented above. In his paper in KGS Bulletin 214, Walters states that "no natural dissolution of the Hutchinson Salt from its top downward has not been detected." Some subsidence may have occurred, but it is not the reason Cheyenne Bottoms developed where it is located. in

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Aber, J.S., 2004 Course Webpages for GO 546 : Field Geomorphology

Bayne, C.K. and Fent, O.S., 1963, The Drainage History of the Upper Kansas River Basin. : Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science ., v. 66, no.3, p. 363-377

Bayne, C.K., 1977, Geology and Structure of Cheyenne Bottoms Barton County, Kansas.: Kansas Geological Survey., Bulletin 211, Part 2, p 1-12

Fent, O.S., 1950, Pleistocene drainage history of Central Kansas: Transactions of the Kansas Acadamey of Science ., v. 53, no. 1, p. 81-90.Part 3 

United State Geological Survey., Accessed 11-20-2004

Walter, R.F., 1978, Land Subsidence in Central Kansas Related to Salt Dissolution.: Kansas Geological Survey., Bulletin 214, p.1-82

Report completed for GO 546 : Field Geomorphology
Z.D. Andereck (Nov, 2004)

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