EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Sediment load determines the shape of rivers 

Predrag Popovic1, Olivier Devauchelle1, Anais Abramian2, and Eric Lajeunesse1
Predrag Popovic et al.
  • 1Institute de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), Laboratoire de Dynamique de Fluides Geologiques, France
  • 2Sorbonne Université, CNRS-UMR 7190, Institut Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, F-75005 Paris, France

Understanding how rivers adjust to the sediment load they carry is critical to predicting the evolution of landscapes. Presently, however, no physically based model reliably captures the dependence of basic river properties, such as its shape or slope, on the discharge of sediment, even in the simple case of laboratory rivers. Here, we show how the balance between fluid stress and gravity acting on the sediment grains, along with cross-stream diffusion of sediment, determines the shape and sediment flux profile of laminar laboratory rivers that carry sediment as bedload. Using this model, which reliably reproduces the experiments without any tuning, we confirm the hypothesis, originally proposed by G. Parker (1978), that rivers are restricted to exist close to the threshold of sediment motion (within about 20%). This limit is set by the fluid–sediment interaction and is independent of the water and sediment load carried by the river. Thus, as the total sediment discharge increases, the intensity of sediment flux (sediment discharge per unit width) in a river saturates, and the river can transport more sediment only by widening. In this large discharge regime, the cross-stream diffusion of momentum in the flow permits sediment transport. Conversely, in the weak transport regime, the transported sediment concentrates around the river center without significantly altering the river shape. If this theory holds for natural rivers, the aspect ratio of a river could become a proxy for sediment discharge—a quantity notoriously difficult to measure in the field.

How to cite: Popovic, P., Devauchelle, O., Abramian, A., and Lajeunesse, E.: Sediment load determines the shape of rivers , EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-4448,, 2022.