A tenfold slowdown in river meander migration driven by plant life


Meandering rivers are diagnostic landforms of hydrologically active planets, and their migration regulates the continental component of biogeochemical cycles that stabilize climate and allow for life on Earth. The rise of river meanders on Earth has been linked to riverbank stabilization driven by the Palaeozoic evolution of plant life about 440 million years ago. Here we provide a fundamental test for this hypothesis using a global analysis of active meander migrations that includes previously ignored unvegetated rivers from the arid interiors of modern continents. When normalized by channel size, unvegetated meanders universally migrate an order of magnitude faster than vegetated ones. While providing irrefutable evidence that vegetation is not required for meander formation, we demonstrate how profoundly vegetation transformed the pace of change for Earth’s landscapes, and we at last offer a mechanistic explanation for the radically distinct stratigraphic records of barren and vegetated rivers. We posit that the migration slowdown driven by the rise of land plants dramatically impacted biogeochemical fluxes and rendered Earth’s landscapes even more hospitable to life. Therefore, the tenfold faster migration of unvegetated rivers may be key to deciphering the environments of barren worlds such as early Earth and Mars.

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Fig. 1: Compilation of vegetated and unvegetated meandering rivers.
Fig. 2: Meander migration rates and morphometry.
Fig. 3: Morphometry of unvegetated and vegetated channels.

Data availability

The authors declare that all data supporting the finding of this study are available within the article and its Supplementary Information files. The latter include a supporting discussion on flood-recurrence intervals, aggradation versus subsidence rates in alluvial basins and their relations to the dimensions of deposited channel bodies and the storage time of floodplain sediment and POC.


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This research was supported by a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (A.I.) and by the John Harvard Distinguished Science Fellows Program within the FAS Division of Science of Harvard University (M.G.A.L.).

Author information

A.I. and M.G.A.L. jointly conceived the study and conducted fieldwork in the Great Basin of the western United States, and they equally contributed to the preparation of the manuscript. The morphometric dataset of meander migrations was compiled by A.I.

Correspondence to Alessandro Ielpi.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor(s): Melissa Plail; Xujia Jiang.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary descriptions, Figs. 1–7 and Tables 1–4.

Supplementary Data 1

Migration rates from modern unvegetated channels.

Supplementary Data 2

Migration rates from modern vegetated channels.

Supplementary Data 3

Geographical coordinates for the river reaches measured in this study.

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Ielpi, A., Lapôtre, M.G.A. A tenfold slowdown in river meander migration driven by plant life. Nat. Geosci. 13, 82–86 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0491-7

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