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Simulating river processes…ooh shiny, stream table!

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

I’ve got a shiny new Emriver Em2 river processes simulator (i.e., stream table), thanks to departmental equipment funds and enthusiastic colleagues. I’ve been on sabbatical this semester and away from campus, so I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but it is enticing me to return. I’ll be teaching Fluvial Processes fall semester, so I’m sure that my students and I will get plenty of chances to explore all of the nifty ways in which we can demonstrate and experiment with fluvial geomorphology. I’m also playing with ideas for using the Emriver model in my hydrogeology class in the spring. I think it will be a perfect way to demonstrate ideas of hyporheic flow, seepage erosion, and break through curves in tracer tests. I think my colleagues are planning to use it in sedimentology, geomorphology and hydrology classes, and one colleague may take it with him when he does outreach activities. I’m sure we will come up with even more uses for it once we get started.

Em4 model at work.

Em4 model at work in promoting discussion about whether the arrow points to a good place to build a house.

My appetite for experiment with the stream table was whetted by a recent visit to Carbondale, Illinois and the base of operations for Little River Research and Design (LRRD). Steve Gough is the owner of LRRD, the mastermind behind the Emriver models, and a genuinely fantastically nice person. Motivated by the idea that hands on education about stream processes is the best way to instill respect for and promote protection of streams and rivers, Steve has poured himself into making the best stream table on the market, and making it affordable enough to for people like me to get their hands on.

Steve Gough, Anne Jefferson and a research assistant in front of LRRD, May 2011

Steve Gough, Anne Jefferson and a research assistant in front of LRRD, May 2011

Personally, I’d always been somewhat underwhelmed by teaching- and demonstration-grade stream tables before seeing the Emriver ones. Partly it was because I’d seen and read about big research flumes, like those at the St. Anthony Falls Lab and Johns Hopkins. But another part of it was that every time I had a chance to play with a home-built stream table I was frustrated by what it couldn’t do. Principally, most stream tables don’t do a very good job of reproducing the meandering behavior of lowland streams. This has even been an area of active and high profile research in the fluvial geomorphology community. Steve’s use of low density plastic beads instead of quartz sand solves that problem pretty nicely, though there’s definitely still some braiding going on.


In addition to the 2-m long Em2 model that I have, LRRD also makes an extremely cool and versatile 4-m long model Em4. With beads colored by size, you can see (and measure) the sorting and selective transport of sediments. You can tilt the table laterally – simulating differential uplift/subsidence across the basin. There’s even a groundwater feed and extraction system! This model is pretty much as cool as I can imagine – at least short of the big research flumes mentioned above.

I can personally attest that this stream table model has the versatility to entrance both a PhD and a preschooler for more than two hours…and the preschooler wanted to go back the next day! Below I’ve added some shots of the Em4 in action. What geomorphic processes do you see?

Em4 looking downstream

Looking dowstream, I see a transition from "bedrock" to alluvial substrate, a really nice train of standing waves, meandering, a floodwall, and some sort of infrastructure project in the floodplain gone horribly wrong.

base level fall

A sudden base level fall is driving incision through an old delta. The dark red sediment is the finest grain size.

tracer test

Green dye was used to examine hyporheic flow transversely through a mid-channel bar. Now blue dye is being added to look for zones of in-channel transient storage.

Anne's picks of the June literature: Fluvial Geomorphology and Landscape Evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgA post by Anne JeffersonHow do rivers erode bedrock streams, during big floods, and in the presence of groundwater? Laboratory and accidental experiments are providing some cool new insights.

Johnson, J., & Whipple, K. (2010). Evaluating the controls of shear stress, sediment supply, alluvial cover, and channel morphology on experimental bedrock incision rate Journal of Geophysical Research, 115 (F2) DOI: 10.1029/2009JF001335

Take a moment to contemplate the title of this paper…experimental bedrock incision rate….how do you measure something like bedrock incision in an experimental setting? how do you measure it in time scales than can be accomplished in the laboratory? Johnson and Whipple figured out how to do it – building a weak concrete streambed in a flume at the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics and then conducting a series of experiments to isolate each of the variables. Their study is related to question of the role of loose sediment in controlling the rates of bedrock river erosion. When does sediment act as a “tool” for erosion by banging into the river bed and abrading it, and when does sediment act as a “cover” for the river bed, protecting it from just such abrasion? Do these two effects create a trade-off suggesting that at some optimal level of sediment abundance, erosion rates are maximized? Johnson and Whipple’s experiments showed that erosion rates increased linearly with sediment flux , but decreased linearly with the extent of sediment cover. They also demonstrated that the extent of sediment cover was function of the ratio of sediment flux to sediment transport capacity, although it was sensitive to local topographic roughness. Their experiments also showed some interesting patterns of how bed roughness develops from focused erosion in interconnected topographically low areas (e.g., @colo_kea’s great video of the Skagway River), but that this development was muted by variations in discharge and sediment flux.* Also note that Johnson, Whipple, and L. Sklar have another new paper out, contrasting rates of bedrock incision from snowmelt and flash floods in Utah’s Henry Mountains. That paper is in GSA Bulletin.

Lamb, M., & Fonstad, M. (2010). Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event Nature Geoscience, 3 (7), 477-481 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo894

In 2002, a dam overspill in Texas created a 7 m deep, 1 km long gorge in jointed bedrock and this article by Lamb and Fonstad examines the mechanics of gorge formation and the importance of plucking as erosional mechanism. Brian Romans (Clastic Detritus) has written a nice post on this article and how it links to ideas of uniformitarianism and Kyle House posted before and after photos at Pathological Geomorphology.

Pornprommin, A., & Izumi, N. (2010). Inception of stream incision by seepage erosion Journal of Geophysical Research, 115 (F2) DOI: 10.1029/2009JF001369

An experimental study in layered sediment showed that seepage-drive scarp retreat was a function of the discharge per unit area and “a diffusion-like function that describes the incision edge shapes.” That diffusion-like function was then related to the weight of the failure block and hydraulic pressure. This paper potentially has some insights for thinking about landscape evolution in groundwater-rich areas (like I tend to do) and for those interested in slope stability analyses.*

Videos of Open Channel Flow phenomena

Boundary Layers and the no slip condition

Laminar Flow in a Pipe

Turbulent Flow in a Pipe

Subcritical and supercritical flow over a weir (video courtesy of Little River Research and Design)

Standing Waves