How Is Topographic Simplicity Maintained in Ephemeral, Dryland Channels?

Friday, 19 December 2014: 2:55 PM
Michael Bliss Singer, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16, United Kingdom; Earth Research Institute, Santa Barbara, CA, United States and Katerina Michaelides, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, Bristol, United Kingdom
Topography in river channels reflects the time integral of streamflow-driven sediment flux mass balance. In dryland basins, infrequent and spatially heterogeneous rainfall generates a nonuniform sediment supply to ephemeral channels from hillslopes, and this sediment is subsequently sorted by spatially and temporally discontinuous channel flow. Paradoxically, the time integral of these interactions tends to produce simple topography, manifest in straight longitudinal profiles and symmetrical cross sections, which are distinct from bed morphology in perennial channels, but the controlling processes are unclear. We present a set of numerical modeling experiments based on field measurements and scenarios of uniform/nonuniform streamflow to investigate ephemeral channel bed-material flux and net sediment accumulation behavior in response to variations in channel hydrology, width, and grain size distribution.

Coupled with variations in valley and channel width and frequent, yet discontinuous hillslope supply of coarse sediment, bed material becomes weakly sorted into coarse and fine sections that then affect rates of channel Qs. We identify three sediment transport thresholds relevant to poorly armored, dryland channels: 1) a low critical value required to entrain any grain sizes from the bed; 2) a value of ~4.5τ*c needed to move all grain sizes within a cross section with equal mobility; and 3) a value of ~50τ*c required to entrain gravel at nearly equivalent rates at all sections along a reach. The latter represents the ‘geomorphically effective’ event, which resets channel topography. We show that spatially variable flow below ~50τ*c creates and subsequently destroys incipient topography along ephemeral reaches and that large flood events above this threshold apparently dampen fluctuations in longitudinal sediment flux and thus smooth incipient channel bar forms. Both processes contribute to the maintenance of topographic simplicity in ephemeral dryland channels.