Stream Velocity Depends on the Shape and Size of the Channel
Flowing water is a very important mechanism for both erosion and deposition. Water flow in a stream is primarily related to the stream’s gradient, but it’s also controlled by the geometry of the stream channel (FIgure 14.15). Water flow velocity decreases due to friction along the stream bed. The stream is thus slowest at the bottom and edges and fastest near the surface and in the middle of the stream (where there is the least amount of friction). The velocity just below the surface of the water is typically a little higher than right at the surface because of friction between the water and the air. On a curved section of a stream, flow is fastest on the outside of the curve and slowest on the inside of the curve.
Another important factor influencing stream-water velocity is the discharge, or volume of water passing a point in a unit of time (e.g., m3/second). Water levels rise during a flood and due to the higher discharge of water the stream flow velocity increases. The higher discharge also increases the cross-sectional area of the stream, so it fills up the channel. In a flood it may overflow the banks. Another factor that affects stream-water velocity is the size of sediments on the stream bed. Large particles tend to slow the flow more than small ones.
Sediment Transport Depends on Stream Velocity and Turbulence
If you drop a piece of gravel into a glass of water, it will sink quickly to the bottom. If you drop a grain of sand into the same glass, it will sink more slowly. A grain of silt will take longer yet to get to the bottom, and a particle of fine clay will take a long time settle out. The rate of settling is determined by the balance between gravity and friction (Figure 14.16). Friction between the grain and water will slow the grain’s fall.
One of the key principles of sedimentary geology is that the ability of a moving medium (air or water) to move sedimentary particles and keep them moving is dependent on the velocity of flow. The faster the medium flows, the larger the particles it can move. As you probably know from intuition and from experience, streams that flow rapidly tend to be turbulent (flow paths are chaotic and the water surface appears rough) and the water may be muddy. In contrast, streams that flow more slowly tend to have laminar flow (straight-line flow and a smooth water surface) and clearer water. Turbulent flow is more effective than laminar flow at keeping sediments suspended within the water.
Particles within a stream are transported in different ways depending on their size (Figure 14.17). Large particles which rest on the stream bed are known as the bedload. The bedload may only be transported when the flow rate is rapid and under flood conditions. They are transported by saltation (bouncing along, and colliding with other particles) and by traction (being pushed along by the force of the flow).
Smaller particles may rest on the bottom occasionally, where they can be transported by saltation and traction, but they can also be held in suspension in the flowing water (the suspended load), especially at higher flow velocities.
Stream water also has a dissolved load, which represents (on average) about 15% of the mass of material transported, and includes ions such as calcium (Ca+2) and chloride (Cl–) in solution. The solubility of these ions is not affected by flow velocity.
If you look at a typical stream, there are always some sediments being deposited, some staying where they are, and some being eroded and transported. This changes over time as the discharge of the river changes in response to changing weather conditions.
The Hjulström-Sundborg Diagram Summarizes What Happens to Grains of Different Sizes at Different Stream Velocities
The faster water is flowing, the larger the particles that can be kept in suspension and transported within the flowing water. However, as Swedish geographer Filip Hjulström discovered in the 1940s, the relationship between grain size and the likelihood of a grain being eroded, transported, or deposited is not as simple as one might imagine (Figure 14.18). Consider, for example, a 1 mm grain of sand. If it’s resting on the bottom of the stream, it will stay there until the flow velocity is high enough to erode it (~20 cm/s). But once it’s in suspension, that same 1 mm particle will remain suspended as long as the velocity doesn’t drop below 10 cm/s. For a 10 mm gravel grain, the velocity is 105 cm/s to be eroded from the bed but only 80 cm/s to remain in suspension.
On the other hand, a 0.01 mm silt particle only needs a velocity of 0.1 cm/s to remain in suspension, but requires 60 cm/s to be eroded. In other words, a tiny silt grain requires a greater velocity to be eroded than a grain of sand that is 100 times larger! For clay-sized particles, the discrepancy is even greater. In a stream, the most easily eroded particles are small sand grains between 0.2 mm and 0.5 mm. Anything smaller or larger requires a higher water velocity to be eroded and entrained in the flow. The reason for this is that small particles, especially tiny grains of clay, possess a net surface charge, hence experience a strong tendency to stick together, and so are difficult to erode from the stream bed.
It’s important to be aware that a stream can both erode and deposit sediments at the same time. At 100 cm/s, for example, silt, sand, and medium gravel will be eroded from the stream bed and transported in suspension, coarse gravel will be transported by saltation and traction, pebbles will be transported by both saltation and traction, and will also be deposited. Cobbles and boulders will remain stationary on the stream bed.
Natural Levees Form Because of Changes in Stream Velocity
A stream typically reaches its greatest velocity when it is close to flooding over its banks. This is known as the bank-full stage, as shown in Figure 14.19. When the flooding stream overtops its banks and occupies the wide area of its flood plain, the water has a much larger area to flow through and the velocity drops dramatically. As water flows from the channel out across the flood plain, it slows down and starts to deposit its sediment load. This forms an elevated bank known as a levee along the edges of the channel. The coarsest and thickest sediments are deposited near the channel banks, with particle size and thickness decreasing as you move further into the flood plain. People also build levees as flood control measures; the idea for this engineered solution to floods came from the naturally-build levees that form during floods.