The geometry of alluvial river channels both controls and adjusts to the flow of water and sediment within them. This feedback between flow and form modulates flood risk, and the impacts of climate and land-use change. Considering widely varying hydro-climates, sediment supply, geology and vegetation, it is surprising that rivers follow remarkably consistent hydraulic geometry scaling relations. In this Perspective, we explore the factors governing river channel geometry, specifically how the threshold of sediment motion constrains the size and shape of channels. We highlight the utility of the near-threshold channel model as a suitable framework to explain the average size and stability of river channels, and show how deviations relate to complex higher-order behaviours. Further characterization of the sediment transport threshold and channel adjustment timescales, coupled with probabilistic descriptions of river geometry, promise the development of future models capable of capturing rivers’ natural complexity.
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The authors thank G. Parker for inspiring this review, his brilliance and enthusiasm has touched nearly every aspect of this work. The idea for this manuscript developed out of conversations at the River, Coastal and Estuarine Morphodynamics (RCEM) 2019 symposium; the authors are grateful to the organizers H. Friedrich and K. Roisin Bryan for that stimulating forum. Work was supported by Army Research Office (Award Number W911NF2010113) and National Science Foundation (NSF), National Robotics Initiative Grant (Award Number 1734365) to D.J.J.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Phillips, C.B., Masteller, C.C., Slater, L.J. et al. Threshold constraints on the size, shape and stability of alluvial rivers. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 406–419 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00282-z