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River system and Processes The Hydrologic Cycle                   The continuous recycling of water between the atmosphere and

land surface Heat from the Sun causes water to evaporate into water vapour which then mixes with other gases in the atmosphere When air parcels containing water vapour are heated, they become less dense and rise As the moist air rises, it cools Cooler air can hold less water vapour so it condenses into tiny water droplets which sometimes form large, fluffy masses called clouds If the clouds continue to rise and cool, the tiny water droplets will combine to form larger and heavier droplets which then fall as rain In colder countries or at much higher elevations, the rising water vapour changes into light ice crystals known as snow Rain and snow are two types of precipitation which fall onto the Earth’s surface The precipitation may fall on the ground, directly into rivers, lakes and seas, or be intercepted by plants or trees. If there is a light shower which lasts for a short duration, little or no rain may reach the ground The rainwater will be briefly held on leaves where it may be absorbed by the plants or evaporated If the rain is heavier and lasts for a longer period of time The rainwater will drop from the trees and infiltrate the soil It will flow downwards in the grounds until it reaches solid bedrock where it will then move laterally. Moving slowly underground, some of this water will emerge from openings called springs and the water will eventually collect in lakes and rivers In other locations, the groundwater remains above the bedrock where it forms layers of water-saturated soil or sand When the soil cannot absorb any more rainwater, the excess water will flow over the land as surface runoff This water, together with the slow moving groundwater, will eventually flow into streams, rivers or lakes

Course of a river Upper  This is where the river begins Many smaller streams and channels join up to form larger streams Several streams join up to form a river

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River starts to meander

 Lower    

Many tributaries join the river

Meanders are common Many distributaries River flows towards its mouth and enters the sea Delta may form at the river mouth

River Erosion          River erosion is the wearing down of the banks and bed of a river and removal of the eroded materials by the action of gravity and flowing water Lateral erosion becomes more prominent as the speed of flow increases An increase in the speed of flow in the middle course of the river is due to two main reasons First, the volume of flow increases due to many tributaries that join the main river Second, in the middle course, as large amounts of silt replace pebbles and boulders on the river bed, the river channel becomes less rough This leads to smoother, uninterrupted flow The increase in discharge leads to a much bigger, deeper channel and a higher speed of flow Hence, the speed of flow is higher in the middle course of a river than in the upper course Where not only the volume is small but much of its speed is also lost due to friction from the big boulders commonly found on the narrow river bed

A river can erode materials in four main ways – hydraulic action, abrasion or corrasion, attrition and solution or corrosion. Hydraulic action  Hydraulic action refers to the action of the flowing water that hits against the river banks and river bed. The water surges into cracks and joints and breaks and loosens pieces of rock and soil This material is then carried downstream by the swift flowing water This process can excavate a large amount of materials in a short time Particularly gravel, sand, slit and clay The pressure of moving water forces its way into the cracks in rocks and widens and breaks them down into fragments.

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Abrasion   Abrasion is an erosional process whereby the river uses its load, eg rock fragments, to constantly scrap and grind against the channel’s walls and bed This wears down the channel’s walls and bed in a process that can also be called corrosion

Attrition    This is the process whereby rock fragments carried by the water knock against each other This may lead to the breaking down of the rock fragments into even smaller pieces The constant grinding of these rock fragments against each other also causes them to become rounded and smoother in the process

Solution    This process occurs when the water in the river reacts chemically with the minerals in the rocks and dissolves them to form a solution. This process is also known as corrosion It is most common in limestone areas

River Transportation     Eroded materials are carried by the moving water down the river course. The materials transported are known as the river load. Rivers transport their load in several ways depending on the size of particles in the loads, the speed and volume of flow. The river load can be transported by traction, saltation, suspension or solution.

Traction   Occurs when there are large boulders that are too heavy to be lifted up by the water in the river So they roll and slide along the river bed

Saltation    Occurs when larger particles such as gravel are part of the river load These particles are too heavy to be suspended in water all the time. Hence, they bounce or hop along the river bed.

Suspension    Suspended materials are fine particles that are kept from settling down on the river bed by the turbulent flow of water. A large quantity of suspended load picked up by the river, especially during floods, will cause the water to look cloudy. The Yellow River in China carries a large amount of yellowish suspended load because the river flows over an extensive area that is covered with thick layers of easily eroded silt.

Solution  Takes place when readily soluble rocks such as those found in limestone areas are dissolved in water to form a solution which is transported downstream.

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All rivers carry away some dissolved minerals. In tropical areas with dense vegetation cover, the river water is often brackish due to the dissolved minerals and organic acids from decayed vegetation.

River Deposition          A river may deposit its load anywhere along its course when the volume of flow is reduced or the speed of flow is decreased. The river, under such circumstances, no longer has enough energy to transport its load. It therefore begins to deposit its load. The coarser and heavier load will be deposited first. The finer particles, including the dissolved load, will be transported throughout the river system to the sea or lake into which the river empties. The amount of sediments deposited will depend on the amount of load carried by the river. Deposition is usually most prominent at the lower course of a river where the gradient is very gentle. In this part of the river course, the speed of flow is slow and the amount of load carried by a river is at its maximum. It is therefore not surprising that most of the depositional landforms are found in the lower course of most rivers.

Dominant Processes at different parts of the river course   The upper course of the river is dominated by vertical erosion while deposition is most common in the lower course of the river. In the middle course, the erosive ability of the river increases because the river’s discharge increases as it moves downstream and there are fewer big boulders present to obstruct and slow down the speed of flow. Lateral erosion is also prominent in the lower course of the river as the discharge is the greatest at this stage. Deposition occurs where the river energy drops such as in the inner banks(convex banks) of a meandering river. Furthermore, the amount of load carried by the river increases downstream, inducing deposition. Transportation occurs throughout the river system from upper to lower course. The amount of load transported increases progressively toward the river mouth in the lower course. The size of sediments transported in the river decreases from upper to lower course.

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Erosional Landforms Valleys and Gorges  Vertical erosion causes the deepening of a river channel which may lead to the formation of a steep-sided valley.

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In the upper course of a river, dominant vertical erosion generally produces V-shaped valleys. In the middle course of a river, both vertical and lateral erosion contribute to the formation of wide V-shaped valleys. An exceptionally deep and narrow valley is called a gorge. It is formed when a river erodes vertically through resistant rocks. As the rocks are very resistant and not easily eroded, the walls of the valley remain very steep. Valleys and gorges are erosional features commonly found in the upper course of a river where vertical erosion is faster than lateral erosion. Hydraulic action, abrasion, and sometimes solution are common erosional processes that produce these landforms.

Waterfalls             When the gradient of a river becomes very steep, the water plunges down from a great height to form a waterfall. An example is the Iguazu Falls at the border of Argentina and Brazil. The Niagara Falls, which straddles the Canadian-United States international border at the province of Ontario and the state of New York, is another famous waterfall. Waterfalls can be formed in two ways. When a river flows across a zone of rocks with different resistance, the less resistant rocks will get eroded much faster. This results in a sudden change in gradient and causes the water to plunge, thus forming a waterfall. As the water plunges and hits the bottom of the waterfall, the force of the plunging water together with the swirling rocks erodes the river bed to form a plunge pool. A waterfall can also be formed by faulting. During faulting, rocks are uplifted. This results in a displacement of rocks where one layer of rock is higher than the other. When a river flows across an area where faulting has occurred, the gradient of the river bed drops suddenly and a waterfall is formed. An example of a waterfall formed in this way is the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River.

Depositional Landforms Floodplains and Levees     After a heavy downpour, the volume of flow in a river may increase drastically. The channel may no longer be able to accommodate this sudden increase in the volume of water and overflows its banks thus causing a flood. As the river overflows its banks and water is spread out over a larger area, the speed of flow is reduced. It begins to deposit its load, especially when the flood starts to subside.

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The heavier and coarser materials will be deposited first on the immediate banks of the river while the finer and lighter materials such as silt and clay will be carried farther away from the banks before they are deposited. In this way, the deposition process helps to sort out the load carried by the river according to size and weight. Over a series of floods, sediments are deposited layer upon layer. As a result, a floodplain is formed. The accumulation of coarser materials on the banks of the river helps to raise the banks higher than the floodplain, forming natural embankments called levees. The continuous deposition of sediments during repeated floods may also cause the river bed to be raised. When this happens, the river channel will flow at an elevation higher than the floodplain.

Deltas               When a river enters a body of water like a lake or the sea, its speed of flow is reduced. This results in a decrease in energy of the river and deposition of sediment takes place. At the river’s mouth, sand is deposited close to the shore, while fine slit and clay are carried farther out before being deposited. Over a long period of time, layers of sediment build up and eventually form an extensive platform at the river mouth. This depositional feature is called a delta. A smaller delta may be formed in the same way when a river enters a lake. The formation of a delta at the mouth of a river depends on several factors. First, the river must carry a lot of sediment when entering the open sea Second, the tidal currents along the coast must not be too strong. Otherwise, the sediment will be washed out into the sea or pushed along the coast much faster than the river can deposit them. Third, the depth of the coastal water should not be too great or else the sediment will not be deposited on the sea floor and will be dispersed into the sea instead. As the river flows through a delta, the deposited sediment may become an obstacle to the path of the river. This forces the river to divide into several distributaries to find a way around the obstruction. Deltas have very fertile alluvial soil and therefore are important agricultural lands.

Erosional and Depositional Landforms Meanders and Oxbow Lakes    Meanders occur when a river twists and turns, and forms hoop-like bends. Although meanders are most prominent in the lower course of a river, they can occur anywhere along the river’s course. A river may meander in its upper course because at this stage, the river has little water and thus low energy.

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The river usually bends and turns to avoid obstacles and find the easiest route down the slope. At this stage, usually no depositional landform is formed because the river carries little, if any, load and the flow is too swift for deposition to take place. In the middle course, where the gradient has become less steep, the river starts to slow down and may begin to meander. Each meander consists of an outer concave bank and an inner convex bank. As the river flows around the bend, the current is faster and stronger on the concave bank. Hence, erosion by undercutting takes place on that bank. On the convex bank, the flow is slower and weaker and this results in deposition. Meanders are most common in the lower course of the river. As erosion and deposition continue on the concave and convex banks respectively, a meander may become more and more pronounced and is separated by a narrow neck. Eventually, the river breaks through the neck and flows through a straight channel. The meander is gradually cut off by deposition and is separated from the main river channel, thus forming an oxbow lake.

River Channel Management River Channelisation   Refers to the different strategies or methods used to manage or control both the volume of a river’s water and the speed of flow. This section will highlight four strategies, namely river realignment, river resectioning, vegetation planting and clearance, and bank protection.

River Realignment  River channelization or realignment involves altering or straightening the river channel so as to increase the speed of flow in order to prevent the river water from reaching flood height. This may be done simply through the clearing of obstacles such as boulders or hard rocks protruding from the banks, or deepening and widening the channel by dredging. In Singapore, both the Singapore River and Kallang River have been extensively altered by widening and deepening the channels through dredging. Certain sections, especially those near heavily built up urban areas, have had their banks reinforced by artificial embankments.

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River Re-Sectioning    In some cases, a river may be straightened or re-sectioned. This may occur especially along a pronounced meander through the creation of artificial cut-offs. Re-sectioning will lead to the shortening of the river thereby increasing the speed of flow of the river.

For example, the Mississippi River in the United States of America has been shortened by 240km to reduce the threat of flooding.

Vegetation Planting and Clearance     An effective way to properly manage river channels is by planting vegetation. The roots of trees and other plants like tall grasses can help to bind the soil together and stabilise the river banks. With proper maintenance, such a measure could improve the stability of the channel. For example, to stabilise the embankments of the Mekong River, countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have launched a joint initiative to protect the mangroves situated along the river. On the other hand, there are occasions which call for the trimming or removal of all vegetation along the banks or the river bed. Vegetation clearance is often conducted to improve the speed of flow and stabilise the river channel. The weight of vegetation especially trees, could add to bank stresses and cause the collapse of the banks. Moreover, the vegetation may contribute woody debris to the river which may deflect the flow of water and accelerate bank erosion. Accumulation of such debris may also slow down the flow of water and encourage flooding. In Singapore, vegetation clearance was carried out on Geylang River, near Tanjong Rhu. Both the planting and removal of vegetation are useful strategies in channel management. Planting of vegetation is appropriate if the aim is to slow down the flow of river while vegetation removal is more applicable if there is a need to increase the speed of the flow of water.

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Bank Protection   River banks can be protected by constructing artificial levees, dykes or embankments. They prevent the river banks from collapsing during heavy rain when the volume of flow increases dramatically.

Effectiveness of Strategies     The river channel management strategies described above can be assessed according to their ability to withstand the test of time. Bank protection through the building of artificial levees and walls may prevent flooding in the short term but its effectiveness in the long term is doubtful. Very often, the building of defences along one part of the bank leads to an increased rate of erosion on other parts of the bank. Furthermore, the costs of building and maintaining these defences have become increasingly expensive.

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They also interfere with nature and are aesthetically unappealing. River realignment and re-sectioning of the river are effective long term measures. However, a lot of resources and manpower are required to carry them out. Both planting and clearing vegetation are considered viable options for managing the river channels. This is because it is preferable to building artificial structures or incurring high costs by altering the river channel.