Alluvial fans are cone-shaped accumulations of coarse sediment deposited at the transition from confined flow in a canyon to unconfined flow in a basin. This also corresponds to a break in slope. As the slope shallows and the flows spread out, the flows slow down and deposit much of the sediment that they were able to transport in the canyon. (Think about the Hjulstrom diagram.) Fan geometry is determined by the rate of deposition. At the canyon mouth, it is steeps (up to 15°) due to rapid deposition of coarse sediment. It shallows to about 5° over the main part of the fan and shallows even more to 1-2° at the toe. Only the suspended sediments are transported beyond the toe, along with dissolved ions. If the water can pond, the fine grains settle out and the water evaporates forming minerals like gypsum and halite, and creating playa lake deposits. Deposition on a given alluvial fan is very rare - one event occurs about every 300 years on most fans in the southwestern US.
Flow types - Two types of flows are common: 1) debris flows and 2) sheet flows. Debris flows are slurries of mud, rock debris, and just enough water to make the sediment into a viscous flow. Due to the high viscosity, the flow is laminar, like a glacier, and like a glacier, there is no significant sorting of grain sizes. Debris flows can transport very large blocks. Debris flows continue to move until the internal friction of the flow due to viscosity exceeds the flow’s momentum when it freezes into place. This can occur due to either the loss of water or lower slope. The resulting deposits show little sorting and would be classified as a mud supported breccia or a diamictite. In most cases, debris flow deposits are unsorted and lack any form of stratification. They are laterally restricted because they don’t spread out too much, and they are commonly an even thickness throughout, with steep edges to the flows.
Sheet Flows - Sheet floods are turbulent flows with significantly more water and less mud than debris flows. Since the flows are turbulent, there is significant grain sorting and normally graded, fining upward deposits are common. Once a flow reaches the mouth of the canyon, the flow spreads out and the coarsest rocks are deposited first. Finer grains are deposited later and farther down the fan and later in time. This produces normally graded beds, but deposition is very rapid and the grading is commonly poor. The suspended load may make it to the toe of the fan if the water doesn’t filter into the fan first. Sheet flood deposits produce broad deposits that are clast supported, with some imbrication of clasts. Unlike a debris flow, sheet flows commonly cover 1/3 to 1/2 of a fan surface.
Other types of flows - A number of other flow types are also common on fans. For example, if there isn’t sufficient rain to produce a sheet flow, ephemeral rivers can flow down the surface of the fan - which is more common. This produces braided river type deposits. There is also a significant gradation between debris flows and sheet floods. They represent two end members, and there are lots of variations in mud content and water content which variously affect the viscosity of the flow and thus the resulting sedimentary deposits.