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When the levees break

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Science  14 May 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6543, pp. 676-679
DOI: 10.1126/science.372.6543.676

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Summary

Avulsions are flooding events that occur when a river, silted up beyond its carrying capacity, leaps from its banks and seeks a new route to the sea. They are often called the "earthquakes of rivers," because they are so sudden and catastrophic. But over the past decade, research has revealed they are also somewhat predictable. Computer analyses and laboratory models of rivers and deltas have yielded insights into where major rivers tend to avulse—and when. Yet just as researchers are gaining foresight into these rhythmic cataclysms, human activity is undermining it. Upstream deforestation and development are adding silt to rivers in unpredictable ways. Levees and dams are altering flows and paths, sometimes worsening the threat.

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