Controls on and Morphodynamic Effects of Width Variations in Bed-load Dominated Alluvial Channels: Experimental and Numerical Study
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Understanding and predicting the effects of width variability and the controls on width adjustment in rivers has a key role in developing management approaches able to account for the physical, ecological and socio-economical dimensions of a river system. Width adaptation in a river occurs due to erosion and accretion of banks, within various geomorphic, environmental and anthropogenic contexts, which set the most relevant factors controlling the morphological dynamics of the river corridor. In turn, changes in channel width imply alterations of the river channel morphodynamics at a variety of space and time scales, implying, for instance, modifications of important controlling parameters, like the width-to-depth ratio, which is closely related to the planform morphology of alluvial rivers. Width adaptation bears crucial implications for river management: on one hand, channel widening may result in loss of valuable land and in the increase of the damage risk of infrastructures in surrounding areas, which are often subjected to increasing pressures related to human settlements and economic activities. On the other hand, several approaches to river restoration are based on the concept of “giving more room to the river”, and thus allow the banks to erode and widen, to increase morphological and physical habitat diversity. In view of these implications, the prediction of width adaptation, understanding of its main causes and controlling factors, and quantification of the riverbed morphodynamic response to width variability is of crucial importance to support effective river management. The practical and engineering interest on stable cross-sections of alluvial channels has attracted a considerable amount of scientific research since late 19th century. Much of the research has focused in developing width prediction tools mostly based on empirical approaches and methods based on extremal hypothesis and to lesser extent on mechanistic methods. In the past two decades, research has advanced in developing numerical models including geotechnical as well as fluvial processes to simulate bank failure mechanism more accurately. Despite significant development on the width predictors, research in controls on width evolution of river channels cannot still be considered a fully settled issue. The study of the morphodynamic response of the riverbed to width variability in space and time is somehow more recent, and has focussed on the dynamics of large-scale bedforms (river bars) that produce a variety of riverbed configurations and planform morphologies. The effect of spatial width variability on river bars has mainly been based on assessing the role of such planform forcing effects to the bed topography, both in case of straight and meandering river channels. The amplitude of width variability has been related to fundamental questions as those behind the transition between single- and multi-thread river morphologies, and most studies consider regular spatial variations of the channel width. Research on the response of channel bed to spatial width variability has mostly consisted of modelling and theoretical approaches, which point out the limit cases of a purely “free” system response, associated with morphodynamic instability, an of purely “forced” bedform pattern by spatial planform non-homogeneity. The large spectrum of mixed configurations between those two theoretical limits has been so far seldom investigated, despite its strong relevance for real river systems. The limits of what can actually be considered a “planform forcing” effect, or has instead a too small variability have never been clarified, a well as its role on the resulting channel morphodynamics. For instance, the effects of small amplitude width variations on straight channels, which may be due to imperfect bank lines or protrusion due to vegetations, on morphodynamics of river bed has been neglected so far.
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