Inverted Channels in the Eastern Sahara—Distribution, Formation, and Interpretation to Enable Reconstruction of Paleodrainage Networks

  • Abdallah S. ZakiEmail author
  • Robert Giegengack
  • Sébastien Castelltort
Part of the Geography of the Physical Environment book series (GEOPHY)


During the Cenozoic Era, the Egyptian Sahara was the site of fluvial activity in a succession of at least three main drainage systems, including the Gilf System (40–16 Ma ago), the Qena System (24–6 Ma ago), and the Nile (30 Ma ago to present). These systems developed as a response to wet conditions, the dramatic events of tectonic activity in the Red Sea Region and southwestern Egypt, and changes of sea level in the Tethys Sea in Late Eocene time to sea-level rise in Late Pleistocene time. The modern Nile consists of captured components of ancestral Nile segments. Representatives of those Nile ancestors and lost tributaries of the Nile have been buried beneath dune fields and sand seas, or have been eroded by wind deflation to be topographically inverted. In this chapter, we present the distribution of inverted river channels in the Egyptian Sahara, and a description of the mechanisms that led to the development of those features during several periods of time within the Cenozoic Era. Moreover, we offer some stratigraphic and geomorphic interpretations that enable reconstructions paleodrainage networks and paleoclimates during those periods of time. Further study of the geochronology and paleohydrology of these relics is necessary to reconstruct the fluvial and paleoclimatic history of the eastern Sahara.


Nile Inverted topography Cenozoic Quaternary Sahara Climate oscillation 



Abdallah Zaki gratefully acknowledges the support of the Swiss Confederation excellence fellowships program (fellowship No: 2017.1006). Thanks go to Mathieu Schuster for sharing a lot of information on the paleoclimate of Sahara. The authors are grateful to Kenneth Edgett from Malin Space Science Systems and Sanjeev Gupta from the Imperial College of London for sharing information on the evolution of inversion of relief on Earth and Mars. We also would like to thank Rebecca Williams from the Planetary Science Institute for her comments on some ideas in this chapter. We greatly appreciate the constructive comments and edits suggested by the reviewers and the editor.


  1. Aref MAM (2003) Classification and depositional environments of Quaternary pedogenic gypsum crusts (gypcrete) from east of the Fayum Depression, Egypt. Sed Geol 155:87–108. Scholar
  2. Babault J, Loget N, Van Den Driessche J et al (2006) Did the Ebro basin connect to the Mediterranean before the Messinian salinity crisis? Geomorphology 81:155–165. Scholar
  3. Banerjee I, McDonald BC (1975) Nature of esker sedimentation. SEPM 23:132–154Google Scholar
  4. Bown TM, Kraus MJ (1988) Geology and palaeoenvironment of the Oligocene Jebel Qatrani Formation and adjacent rocks, Fayum Province, Egypt. US Geol Surv Prof Pap 1452:1–60Google Scholar
  5. Bristow CS, Drake N, Armitage S (2009) Deflation in the dustiest place on Earth: the Bodélé Depression, Chad. Geomorphology 105:50–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brookes IA (2003) Palaeofluvial estimates from exhumed meander scrolls, Taref formation (Turonian), Dakhla Region, western desert, Egypt. Cretac Res 24:97–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burr DM, Williams RMS, Wendell KD et al (2010) Inverted fluvial features in the Aeolis/Zephyria Plana region, Mars: formation mechanism and initial paleodischarge estimates. J Geophys Res Planets.
  8. Butzer KW, Hansen CL (1968) Desert and river in Nubia. University of Wisconsin Press, MadisonGoogle Scholar
  9. Cuevas M, Cabera JL, Marcuello L et al (2010) Exhumed channel sandstone networks within fluvial fan deposits from the Oligo-Miocene Caspe Formation, south-east Ebro Basin (north-east Spain). Sedimentology 57:162–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Davis JM, Balme M, Grindrod PM et al (2016) Extensive Noachian fluvial systems in Arabia Terra: implications for early Martian climate. Geology. Scholar
  11. Embabi NS (2004) The geomorphology of Egypt. Landforms and evolution, vol 1. The Nile Valley and the Western Desert. Egyptian Geographical Society, CairoGoogle Scholar
  12. Embabi N (2018) Landscapes and landforms of Egypt. Springer, ZugCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fawdon P, Gupta S, Davis J et al (2018) Hypanis Valles delta: the last high stand of an ocean on early Mars? Earth Planet Sci Lett 500:225–241. Scholar
  14. Fielding L, Najman Y, Millar I et al (2018) The initiation and evolution of the River Nile. Earth Planet Sci Lett 489:166–178CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Foix N, Allard JO, Paredes JM et al (2012) Fluvial styles, palaeohydrology and modern analogues of an exhumed, Cretaceous fluvial system: Cerro Barcino Formation, Cañadón Asfalto Basin, Argentina. Cretac Res 34:298–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Foucault A, Stanley DJ (1989) Late Quaternary paleoclimatic oscillations in East Africa recorded by heavy minerals in the Nile delta. Nature 339:44–46. Scholar
  17. Ghoneim E, El-Baz F (2007) The application of radar topographic data to mapping of a mega-paleodrainage in the Eastern Sahara. J Arid Environ 69:658–675CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ghoneim E, El-Baz F (2008) Mapping water basins in the eastern Sahara by SRTM data. In: IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium, 6–11 July, Boston, pp 1–4Google Scholar
  19. Ghoneim E, Benedetti M, El-Baz F (2012) An integrated remote sensing and GIS analysis of Kufrah Paleoriver, Eastern Sahara. Geomorphology 139–140:242–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Giegengack RF (1968) Late Pleistocene history of the Nile Valley in Egyptian Nubia. Dissertation, Yale UniversityGoogle Scholar
  21. Giegengack RF, Zaki AS (2017) Inverted topographic features, now submerged beneath the water of Lake Nasser, document a morphostratigraphic sequence of high-amplitude late-Pleistocene climate oscillation in Egyptian Nubia. J Afr Earth Sc. Scholar
  22. Girard F, Ghienne JF, Rubino JL (2012) Channelized sandstone bodies (‘cordons’) in the Tassili N’Ajjer (Algeria & Libya): snapshots of a Late Ordovician proglacial outwash plain. Geol Soc London, Spec Publ. Scholar
  23. Goudie A (2005) The drainage of Africa since the Cretaceous. Geomorphology 67:437–456. Scholar
  24. Hall BL, Hendy CH, Denton GH (2006) Lake-ice conveyor deposits: geomorphology, sedimentology, and importance in reconstructing the glacial history of the Dry Valleys. Geomorphology 75:143–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Haynes CV (1980) Geochronology of Wadi Tushka: lost tributary of the Nile. Science 210:68–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hermina M, Klitzsch E, List FK (1989) Stratigraphic lexicon and explanatory notes to the geological map of Egypt, scale 1: 500,000. Conco Inc., CairoGoogle Scholar
  27. Hoffmann DL, Rogerson M, Spötl C et al (2016) Timing and causes of North African wet phases during the last glacial period and implications for modern human migration. Sci Rep-UK 6:36367.
  28. Holm DA (1960) Desert geomorphology in the Arabian Peninsula. Science 132:1369–1379. Scholar
  29. Issawi B, McCauley JF (1993) The Cenozoic landscape of Egypt and its river systems. Ann Geol Surv Egypt 19:357–384Google Scholar
  30. Issawi B, Sallam E (2017) Rejuvenation of dry paleochannels in arid regions in NE Africa: a geological and geomorphological study. Arab J Geosci.
  31. King LC (1942) South African scenery. Oliver and Boyd, EdinburghGoogle Scholar
  32. Krijgsman W, Raffi FJH, Wilson DS (1999) Chronology, causes and progression of the Messinian salinity crisis. Nature 400:652–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kuper R, Kröpelin S (2006) Climate-controlled Holocene occupation in the Sahara: motor of Aftica’s evolution. Science 313:803–807CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Le Conte J (1880) The old river beds of California. Am J Sci 19:176–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Le Conte J (1886) A post-Tertiary elevation of the Sierra Nevada shown by the river beds. Am J Sci 32:167–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Leila M, Moscariello A (2019) Seismic stratigraphy and sedimentary facies analysis of the pre- and syn-Messinain salinity crisis sequences, onshore Nile Delta, Egypt: implications for reservoir quality prediction. Mar Pet Geol 101:303–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Maizels J (1990) Raised channels as indicators of palaeohydrologic change-a case study from Oman. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 76:241–277. Scholar
  38. Maxwell TA, Issawi B, Vance Haynes C (2010) Evidence for Pleistocene lakes in the Tushka region, south Egypt. Geology 38:1135–1138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. McCauley J, Breed M, Schaber G et al (1986) Palaeodrainages of the eastern Sahara, the radar rivers revisited (SIR-A/B implications for a Mid-Tertiary Trans-African Drainage System). IEEE Trans Geosci Remote Sens GE 24:624–648CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Miller RP (1937) Drainage lines in bas-relief. J Geol 45:432–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Omar GI, Steckler MS (1995) Fission track evidence on the initial rifting of the Red Sea: two pulses, no propagation. Science 270:1341–1344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Pain CF, Clarke JDA, Thomas M (2007) Inversion of relief on Mars. Icarus 190(2):478–491. Scholar
  43. Pain CF, Ollier CD (1995) Inversion of relief—a component of landscape evolution. Geomorphology 12(2):151–165. Scholar
  44. Reeves T (1983) Pliocene channel calcrete and suspenparallel drainage in West Texas and New Mexico. In: Wilson, RCL (ed) Residual deposits-surface related weathering processes and materials. Geol Soc Spec Publ 11:178–183. Scholar
  45. Rhodes DD (1980) Exhumed topography—a case study of the Stanislaus Table Mountain, California. Reports of Planetary Geology Program 1980, NASA Technical Memorandum 82835:397–399Google Scholar
  46. Said R (1981) The geological evolution of the River Nile. Springer, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Said R (1990) The geology of Egypt. Balkema, RotterdamGoogle Scholar
  48. Sandford KS, Arkell WJ (1929) Paleolithic man and the Nile-Fayum divide: a study of the region during Pliocene and Pleistocene times. Oriental Institute Publications 17, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 1–92Google Scholar
  49. Wang ZT, Lai ZP, Qu JJ (2015) Inverted relief landforms in the Kumtagh Desert of northwestern China: a mechanism to estimate wind erosion rates. Geol J. Scholar
  50. Williams RME (2007) Global spatial distribution of raised curvilinear features on Mars. In: Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 38, Houston, Texas, abstract 1821Google Scholar
  51. Williams M (2019) The Nile basin: quaternary geology, geomorphology and prehistoric environments. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Scholar
  52. Williams RME, Chidsey TC, Eby DE (2007) Exhumed paleochannels in central Utah—analogs for raised curvilinear features on Mars. In: Willis GC, Hylland MD, Clark DL et al (eds) Central Utah—diverse geology of a dynamic landscape. Utah Geol Assoc Publ 36:220–235Google Scholar
  53. Williams RME, Irwin RP, Zimbelman JR (2009) Evaluation of paleohydrologic models for terrestrial inverted channels: implications for application to martian sinuous ridges. Geomorphology 107:300–315. Scholar
  54. Williams RME, Irwin RP, Zimbelman JR et al (2011) Field guide to exhumed paleochannels near Green River, Utah: terrestrial analogs for sinuous ridges on Mars. In: Garry WB, Bleacher JE (eds) Analogs for planetary exploration. Geol Soc Am Spec Pap 483:483–505.
  55. Zaki AS (2015) Reconstruction the residuals of the lost drainage systems on the Eocene Plateau of Western Desert of Egypt. 2015 GSA Annual Meeting, Baltimore.
  56. Zaki AS (2016) Inverted channels on Earth: analogs for inverted topography on Mars. 47th LPSC 2466#.
  57. Zaki AS, Giegengack R (2016) Inverted topography in the southeastern part of the Western Desert of Egypt. J Afr Earth Sc 121:56–61. Scholar
  58. Zaki AS, Pain C, Edgett KE, Giegengack R (2018) Inverted stream channels in the Western Desert of Egypt: synergistic remote, field observations and laboratory analysis on Earth with application to Mars. Icarus 309:105–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Abdallah S. Zaki
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robert Giegengack
    • 2
  • Sébastien Castelltort
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Earth SciencesUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Earth and Environmental ScienceUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

Personalised recommendations