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Sediment supply as a driver of river meandering and floodplain evolution in the Amazon Basin

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The role of externally imposed sediment supplies on the evolution of meandering rivers and their floodplains is poorly understood, despite analytical advances in our physical understanding of river meandering1,2. The Amazon river basin hosts tributaries that are largely unaffected by engineering controls and hold a range of sediment loads, allowing us to explore the influence that sediment supply has on river evolution. Here we calculate average annual rates of meander migration within 20 reaches in the Amazon Basin from Landsat imagery spanning 1985–2013. We find that rivers with high sediment loads experience annual migration rates that are higher than those of rivers with lower sediment loads. Meander cutoff also occurs more frequently along rivers with higher sediment loads. Differences in meander migration and cutoff rates between the study reaches are not explained by differences in channel slope or river discharge. Because faster meander migration and higher cutoff rates lead to increased sediment-storage space in the resulting oxbows, we suggest that sediment supply modulates the reshaping of floodplain environments by meandering rivers. We conclude that imposed sediment loads influence planform changes in lowland rivers across the Amazon.

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Figure 1: Enhanced development of point bars on the Rio Mamoré downstream of the confluence with the Rio Grande.
Figure 2: Study sites, river characteristics, and sediment fluxes.
Figure 3: Meander migration and cutoff in the maintenance of channel sinuosity.
Figure 4: Meander cutoff in the production of valley accommodation space for sediment storage.

Change history

  • 07 November 2014

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the contributions of the author Eli D. Lazarus were missing, they should have been included in the following sentence: 'C.L. and E.D.L. provided technical expertise in analysing channel change from remote sensing data.' This error has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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The study was supported by NERC grant NE/I002081/1, NASA grant NAG5-6120, the Don J. Easterbrook Award of the Geological Society of America, and by the National Research Foundation Singapore and the Singapore Ministry of Education under the Research Centres of Excellence initiative (EOS contribution 78). The UK Leverhulme Trust, the US Fulbright Commission, and the Earth Observatory of Singapore also supported T. Dunne. We thank N. Morales, J. Teng and C. Constantine for assistance in data collection and for discussions relating to hypothesis development.

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J.A.C. and T. D. conceived the study. J.A. conducted calculations of channel change, and T.D., J.A.C. and J.A. compiled data on sediment loads. C.L. and E.D.L. provided technical expertise in analysing channel change from remote sensing data. J.A.C. and T.D. led data analysis and interpretation, assisted by all co-authors. J.A.C. drafted the paper, which was then reviewed by all co-authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to José Antonio Constantine or Thomas Dunne.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Constantine, J., Dunne, T., Ahmed, J. et al. Sediment supply as a driver of river meandering and floodplain evolution in the Amazon Basin. Nature Geosci 7, 899–903 (2014).

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