Self-organization of river channels as a critical filter on climate signals

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Science  06 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6286, pp. 694-697
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad3348

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Filtering out the effect of large floods

Large floods should seemingly influence the depth and width of rivers. Phillips and Jerolmack, however, suggest that the self-organization of bedrock river channels blunts the impact of extreme rainfall events. River channel geometries from a wide range of course-grained rivers across the United States show that larger floods have very limited additional impact on channel geometry. River channel sculpting does increase as flood size increases, but the effect is most pronounced for moderate floods. This relationship may explain the long-term stability of rivers across shifts in climate.

Science, this issue p. 694


Spatial and temporal variations in rainfall are hypothesized to influence landscape evolution through erosion and sediment transport by rivers. However, determining the relation between rainfall and river dynamics requires a greater understanding of the feedbacks between flooding and a river’s capacity to transport sediment. We analyzed channel geometry and stream-flow records from 186 coarse-grained rivers across the United States. We found that channels adjust their shape so that floods slightly exceed the critical shear velocity needed to transport bed sediment, independently of climatic, tectonic, and bedrock controls. The distribution of fluid shear velocity associated with floods is universal, indicating that self-organization of near-critical channels filters the climate signal evident in discharge. This effect blunts the impact of extreme rainfall events on landscape evolution.

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