How Rivers Get Across Mountains: Transverse Drainages

Phillip H. Larson, Norman Meek, John Douglass, Ronald Dorn, Yeong Bae Seong

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Although mountains represent a barrier to the flow of liquid water across our planet and an Earth of impenetrable mountains would have produced a very different geography, many rivers do cross mountain ranges. These transverse drainages cross mountains through one of four general mechanisms: antecedence—the river maintains its course during mountain building (orogeny); superimposition—a river erodes across buried bedrock atop erodible sediment or sedimentary rock, providing a route across what later becomes an exhumed mountain range; piracy or capture—where a steeper gradient path captures a lower gradient drainage across a low relief interfluve; and overflow—a basin fills with sediment and water, ultimately breaching the lowest sill to create a new river. This article reviews research that aids in identifying the mechanism responsible for a transverse drainage, notes a major misconception about the power of headward eroding streams that has dogged scholarship, and examines the transverse drainage at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)274-283
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 4 2017


  • antecedence
  • overflow
  • piracy
  • superimposition
  • transverse drainage

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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