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Experimental evidence for the conditions necessary to sustain meandering in coarse-bedded rivers

Braudrick, Christian A., Dietrich, William E., Leverich, Glen T., Sklar, Leonard S.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2009 v.106 no.40 pp. 16936-16941
alfalfa, bedload, chutes, floodplains, rivers, sand, sediment deposition, suspended sediment
Meandering rivers are common on Earth and other planetary surfaces, yet the conditions necessary to maintain meandering channels are unclear. As a consequence, self-maintaining meandering channels with cutoffs have not been reproduced in the laboratory. Such experimental channels are needed to explore mechanisms controlling migration rate, sinuosity, floodplain formation, and planform morphodynamics and to test theories for wavelength and bend propagation. Here we report an experiment in which meandering with near-constant width was maintained during repeated cutoff and regeneration of meander bends. We found that elevated bank strength (provided by alfalfa sprouts) relative to the cohesionless bed material and the blocking of troughs (chutes) in the lee of point bars via suspended sediment deposition were the necessary ingredients to successful meandering. Varying flood discharge was not necessary. Scaling analysis shows that the experimental meander migration was fast compared to most natural channels. This high migration rate caused nearly all of the bedload sediment to exchange laterally, such that bar growth was primarily dependent on bank sediment supplied from upstream lateral migration. The high migration rate may have contributed to the relatively low sinuosity of 1.19, and this suggests that to obtain much higher sinuosity experiments at this scale may have to be conducted for several years. Although patience is required to evolve them, these experimental channels offer the opportunity to explore several fundamental issues about river morphodynamics. Our results also suggest that sand supply may be an essential control in restoring self-maintaining, actively shifting gravel-bedded meanders.