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Rob Ferguson*

Department of Geography, Durham University, UK

Received 18 May 2010; Revised 25 August 2010; Accepted 2 September 2010

*Correspondence to: Rob Ferguson, Department of Geography, Durham University, UK. E-mail: r.i.ferguson@durham.ac.uk

River ow is retarded by the frictional resistance of the rough

bed and banks of the channel. For any given channel geom-

etry, channel slope, and water discharge an increase in

frictional resistance causes deeper and slower ow, with con-

sequences for ood risk, aquatic habitat, shear stress and

bed-material transport. Flow resistance is ultimately due to

blocking by, and drag on, topographic irregularities at all

scales from individual pebbles to buildings on a oodplain.

Modern computer power has enabled three-dimensional (3D)

numerical modelling of the physics if sufcient topographic

detail is available (Lane, 2005), but for many geomorphologi-

cal purposes only the bulk ow properties of a reach are

required: cross-sectionally averaged depth, velocity, and shear

stress. The effect of friction on these is quantied through

simple equations which predict mean velocity (V) from

hydraulic radius (R, mean depth in most rivers) and channel

slope (S). There are many such equations, and preferences

differ somewhat between countries and disciplines, but by far

the best-known and most widely-used overall is what in

English-speaking countries is known as the Manning equation:

V R S n =

2 3 1 2

(1)

where n is a roughness coefcient of dimension L

-1/3

T. It is

always calculated in SI units, so in feet-second units the equa-

tion becomes V = 149R

2/3

S

1/2

/n.

The Manning equation originated as a correction to the

Chzy equation V = C(RS)

1/2

. Experience showed that C tended

to vary with water level in a reach, which was inconvenient for

predictive use. In the 1880s Manning and others proposed

that C increased as the one-sixth power of depth. This yields

Equation 1 with n a constant for the reach. The attraction of a

resistance parameter that is invariant with stage is that its value

can be calibrated from ow measurements at one time, then

used to predict past or future conditions (e.g. palaeoood

discharge or bankfull conveyance). This is the classic applica-

tion of the Manning equation. A more recent application is in

dening the friction slope in iterative calculations of water

surface elevation in one-dimensional (1D) (width-averaged)

or two-dimensional (2D) (depth-averaged) numerical ow

models and morphodynamic models. The Manning equation is

the default, or sometimes only, resistance equation in many

such codes. At least one code (HEC-RAS) allows the option of

discharge-dependent n, but in many published applications of

this and other models a xed value of n calibrated to water

levels at one discharge is used for simulations at all places and

times. Still other applications are to situations where ow

resistance cannot be calibrated, such as channel design/

restoration and theoretical work on hydraulic geometry. Users

must then either assign n (or its equivalent in an alternative

resistance law) on the basis of experience or estimate it from

a channel property whose design value is known or which is

part of the set of variables to be solved. Bed-grain size is the

obvious property to use, whilst recognizing that ow resis-

tance depends on more than grain roughness. The most wide-

spread practice is estimate n by relations proposed in the

1920s by Strickler:

n D D 0 047 0 039

50

16

84

16

(2)

where D

50

is the median surface grain diameter and D

84

is the

size that is 84% ner. The combination of Equations 1 and 2 is

referred to hereafter as ManningStrickler.

The aimof this commentary is to persuade geomorphologists

that the Manning equation is seldom a good choice for calcu-

lations of bulk owproperties, despite its popularity. It is shown

that n usually decreases signicantly with increasing discharge

in a reach, that ManningStrickler usually underestimates ow

resistance even in high ows, and that these aws have adverse

implications in many geomorphological applications.

A tendency for n to decrease with increasing stage in gravel-

bed rivers was noted by Chow (1959), Sargent (1979), Richards

(1982), and Dingman (2009) amongst others, and Dingman

also mentions the tendency of ManningStrickler to underes-

timate n. But these authors did not display much evidence and

their cautionary comments do not seem to be widely known.

Here strong supporting evidence is presented obtained by

analyzing an extended version of a data compilation used in

Ferguson (2007). It now includes sand-bed rivers as well as

gravel- and boulder-bed reaches and comprises >1000 ow

measurements in >400 reaches. The information comes from

20 published and several unpublished sources; Ferguson

(in press) gives details. The data span an exceptionally wide

range of bed and ow conditions (S = 000001021, D

84

=

02800 mm, R = 00415 m, R/D

84

= 0196000, V =

00347 m s

-1

) but exclude overbank ows and reaches

EARTH SURFACE PROCESSES AND LANDFORMS

Earth Surf. Process. Landforms 35, 18731876 (2010)

Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Published online 16 October 2010 in Wiley Online Library

(wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/esp.2091

signicantly affected by vegetation or woody debris. Values

of n calculated from the measurements represent total ow

resistance, including form drag as well as grain roughness.

To test whether n decreases as discharge (Q) increases in a

reach 65 reaches were selected with four or more ow mea-

surements spanning at least a 10-fold range of Q, Spearmans

rank correlation coefcient was calculated, and one-tailed

signicance tests were performed. The correlation is signi-

cantly positive for one of the three sand-bed reaches with a

sufcient range of measurements, and signicantly negative

for the other two. This probably reects an increase in resis-

tance as dunes grow in amplitude, then a decrease as they

wash out. The correlation is negative in all 62 reaches with

gravel or boulder beds, and signicant (p < 005) in 53 of them.

This is compelling evidence that the Manning equation under-

estimates the extent to which bed roughness is drowned out

at higher stages. The effect is not restricted to small streams:

ve of seven reaches with bankfull discharge in excess of

1000 m

3

s

-1

had signicant negative correlations. The ratio of n

at lowest measured Q to n at highest measured Q has a

median of 23 and exceeds 12 in one boulder-bed reach.

Figure 1 shows examples of the stage dependence of n in

different channel styles. In gravel-bed rivers the reduction is

generally strongest from low to moderate ow, and n some-

times becomes asymptotically constant at high Q, though not

at any consistent value of submergence (R/D

84

). This pattern

implies that when estimating bankfull discharge or recon-

structing palaeoood discharge n should be calibrated at the

highest available stage, and/or that allowance should be made

for its expected decrease (as is routinely done by UK consult-

ants when predicting ood inundation: S.N. Lane, personal

communication, May 2010). Conversely, using a high-ow n

could give misleading predictions of low-ow ecological

habitat. Implications of the stage dependence of n for geomor-

phological modelling are discussed later.

To test the accuracy of predicting n from grain size the

highest ow in each reach (usually almost bankfull) was

selected and the n value calculated from ow measurements

was compared with the value predicted by Equation 2.

Figure 2(A) shows that measured n nearly always exceeds the

Strickler value, by about a factor of two on average. Manning

Strickler therefore tends to exaggerate near-bankfull convey-

ance, and by implication will be even more biased in low-ow

conditions. The likely cause of the bias is that the Strickler

relation was tted to relatively deep ows over near-uniform

beds with less form resistance than many natural rivers.

Ferguson (in press) shows that increasing the coefcient in

Equation 1 does not eliminate the problem, whose root cause

is the assumption of a 1/6 power relation in all circumstances.

Figure 2(B) shows that the discrepancy ratio increases system-

atically once relative submergence declines below about 10

to 20, i.e. in situations where obstacle clasts and other bed

structures become important, and Figures 2(A) and 2(B) both

show bigger discrepancies in ow over coarse sand (which

typically develops dunes) than ne/medium sand (which

only develops ripples). Form resistance in gravel-bed rivers is

usually least in deep rivers with fairly ne beds, which may

explain the relatively better performance of the Strickler

relation in this part of Figure 2(A).

There are alternatives to the Manning and ManningStrickler

equations which better represent within- and between-reach

variation in resistance. Ferguson (in press) used the present

data set to test how well different equations reproduce mea-

sured velocity (or equivalently discharge). Predictions using

ManningStrickler are accurate to within a factor of two (i.e.

between half and twice the measured value) in only 52% of

cases, whereas the other ve equations that were tested

achieve this in 7382% of cases. One of the best performers is

the next most widely-used resistance law after Manning: the

logarithmic law using a roughness height scaled on a multiple

of D

84

(e.g. Hey, 1979). Another is the variable-power equation

proposed by Ferguson (2007); this is asymptotic to Manning

Strickler in deep ows but deviates progressively from it in

ows shallower than R/D

84

20. Figure 2(B) shows that it gives

an excellent t to the present data, apart from a small bias

for ows over coarse sand. ManningStrickler is even out-

performed on average by three purely empirical relations

without any roughness parameter. That of Jarrett (1984) esti-

mates n from slope rather than grain size, but does not work

well for sand-bed rivers; those of Bjerklie et al. (2005) and

Lpez et al. (2007) are unconstrained regressions of V on R

and S, and work well except for very steep shallow streams.

The discussion so far has emphasized how the Manning

equation with n estimated from grain size or calibrated at a

single ow can generate erroneous predictions of how velocity

and discharge vary with ow stage. Equally, it can lead to

erroneous predictions of how ow depth varies in space and

time, particularly in relatively small and/or steep rivers and

streams. This has important implications for many kinds of

geomorphological modelling. For example, width-averaged

bedload transport rates are normally predicted from shear

stress as estimated from the depth-slope product. Bedload

transport equations are highly non-linear, so even quite small

differences in estimated depth can lead to big differences

in predicted transport rate. By extension, morphodynamic

models which incorporate the feedback from bedload trans-

port to bed elevation and grain-size distribution are also

sensitive to how ow resistance is represented. To illustrate this

0.01 0.1 1 10 100 1000 10000

Q (m

3

/s)

0.01

0.1

1

n

Ashop

Ruakokapatuna

Bow

East Prairie

Figure 1. Examples of variation in Mannings n with discharge in channels of different character: large (Bow River; Kellerhals et al., 1972) and small

(Ruakokapatuna; Hicks and Mason, 1991) gravel-bed pool-rife reaches, small cobble/boulder cascade reach (River Ashop; Lee and Ferguson,

2002), and small sand-bed river (East Prairie; Kellerhals et al., 1972).

R. FERGUSON 1874

Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, Vol. 35, 18731876 (2010)

the 1D simulation by Hoey and Ferguson (1994) of the

development of downstream ning by selective transport and

deposition along Allt Dubhaig in Scotland was repeated, this

time using different resistance laws but keeping all other equa-

tions and boundary conditions constant. Table I shows that the

outcomes are appreciably different. The ManningStrickler law

gives much more downstream ning than the logarithmic law

used in the original paper. This is because the Strickler relation

gives lower resistance, depth and shear stress so that the

sediment transported from proximal sections and deposited

distally is ner-grained on average than in the log-law run.

Predictions with xed values of n depend on whether the

resistance is appropriate for the proximal or distal part of the

reach. This example is for a stream with relatively low submer-

gence (R/D

84

less than ve proximally, 2030 distally). In large

low-gradient gravel-bed rivers with R/D

84

~100 there is far less

difference between the mean depths predicted by alternative

resistance laws. Thus Ferguson and Church (2009) were able

to use xed n in a 1D morphodynamic model of lower Fraser

River in western Canada, which has similar bed grain sizes to

Allt Dubhaig but cross-sectionally averaged depths of 515 m

at high ow. But problems still arise in 2D models of rivers like

this using xed n: Li et al. (2008) found that Manning with n

calibrated to ood levels in the same reach of Fraser River gave

excessive shear stresses and transport rates in shallow ows

near bars and banks.

Another application in which results depend on the choice of

resistance law is rational regime theory, which seeks to explain

downstream hydraulic geometry from physical principles.

0.01

0.1

1

0.0001 0.001

A

B

0.01 0.1 1

M

a

n

n

i

n

g

'

s

n

D

84

(m)

Measured

Median

Strickler

0.1

10

1

100

0.1 1 10 1000 10000 100 100000

M

e

a

s

u

r

e

d

n

/

S

t

r

i

c

k

l

e

r

n

R/D84

Data

Variable-power equation

Figure 2. Tests of the Strickler relation. (A) Plot shows how measured values of Mannings n vary with grain size, for comparison with the Strickler

relation (Equation 2; sloping straight line in plot). Only the highest ow in each reach is plotted. The irregular line joins medians of measured n and

D

84

for half-phi intervals of D

84

. (B) Plot shows how the ratio of measured n to Strickler n varies with relative submergence R/D

84

. The curve is what

is predicted using the variable-power resistance law proposed by Ferguson (2007). This gure is available in colour online at wileyonlinelibrary.com

Table I. Sensitivity of morphodynamic simulations to choice of resis-

tance law

Resistance law

D

50

(mm) Flow depth (m) Mannings n

At

26 km

At

0 km

At

26 km

At

0 km

At

26 km

log, k

s

= 31D

84

26 050 053 0050 0034

ManningStrickler 13 034 048 0029 0022

Manning, n = 0050 28 049 070 0050 0050

Manning, n = 0034 17 038 061 0034 0034

Predictions of downstream ning along 26 km of Allt Dubhaig after

steady near-bankfull ow (8 m

3

s

-1

) for one model year. Other model

details as in Hoey and Ferguson (1994). Proximal D

50

is xed at

86 mm.

TIME TO ABANDON THE MANNING EQUATION? 1875

Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, Vol. 35, 18731876 (2010)

Many different combinations of assumptions have been made

(Eaton, in press) but a resistance law is always required and

ManningStrickler is often chosen. Sensitivity to the choice will

depend on the other assumptions made, but we can get some

idea by considering a very simple regime theory for gravel-bed

rivers. Assume that (1) bankfull dimensionless shear stress is

approximately the same in all reaches, as proposed by Andrews

(1984) and endorsed by several later authors; (2) resistance

follows the general power lawV = a(gRS)

1/2

(R/D)

b

; and (3) slope

is related to discharge by S (Q/g

1/2

D

5/2

)

034

, which Parker et al.

(2007) found was a good t to a large and diverse data set.

These assumptions imply the width relation w Q S

b+1

/D

3/2

, so

with grain size xed the ManningStrickler law (b = 1/6) gives

w Q

060

. But b = 1/2 (a better t to smaller rivers) gives w

Q

049

, and b = 1 (appropriate for very steep shallow streams)

gives w Q

032

. The outcome is therefore quite sensitive to how

resistance is specied.

Is it time, then, for geomorphologists to abandon the

Manning and Strickler equations? The evidence presented here

suggests these traditional standbys are moderately reliable for

width-averaged calculations of ow in deep rivers with plane

gravel beds or rippled medium/ne sand beds, but not for dune

beds or for shallower ows over gravel, cobbles or boulders. In

the latter case, if roughness is to be estimated from grain size

the logarithmic and variable-power equations are preferable. If

high ows in small coarse-bedded rivers are to be predicted or

reconstructed from a low-ow calibration, almost any alterna-

tive will be safer than Manning with xed n. In theoretical

work the resistance law should be appropriate for the expected

range of relative submergence, and once again a logarithmic

or variable-power equation will often be the safest choice. In

summary, the Manning and Strickler equations should be used

with caution and should cease to be default assumptions in

geomorphological research and practice.

AcknowledgmentsThis paper has beneted from constructive

reviews by Steve Darby and Andrew Nicholas and from Stuart Lanes

editorial advice.

References

Andrews ED. 1984. Bed material entrainment and hydraulic geometry

of gravel-bed rivers in Colorado. Geological Society of America

Bulletin 95: 371378.

Bjerklie DM, Dingman SL, Bolster CH. 2005. Comparison of consti-

tutive ow resistance equations based on the Manning and Chezy

equations applied to natural rivers. Water Resources Research 41:

W11502.

Chow VT. 1959. Open Channel Hydraulics. McGraw-Hill: NewYork.

Dingman SL. 2009. Fluvial Hydraulics. Oxford University Press:

Oxford.

Eaton BC. In press. Hydraulic geometry: empirical investigations and

theoretical approaches. In Treatise in Geomorphology vol. 9:

Fluvial Geomorphology, Wohl EE (ed.), Elsevier: Amsterdam;

Chapter 9.18.

Ferguson R. 2007. Flow resistance equations for gravel- and boulder-

bed streams. Water Resources Research 43: W05427. DOI. 10.

1029/2006WR005422

Ferguson R. In press. Reach-scale ow resistance. In Treatise in

Geomorphology vol. 9: Fluvial Geomorphology, Wohl EE (ed.),

Elsevier: Amsterdam; Chapter 9.5.

Ferguson R, Church M. 2009. A critical perspective on 1D modeling

of river processes: gravel load and aggradation in lower Fraser River.

Water Resources Research 45: W11424. DOI. 10.1029/2009

WR007740

Hey RD. 1979. Flow resistance in gravel-bed rivers. Journal of the

Hydraulics Division ASCE 105: 365379.

Hicks DM, Mason PD. 1991. Roughness Characteristics of New

Zealand Rivers. DSIR Water Resources Survey: Wellington.

Hoey TB, Ferguson R. 1994. Numerical simulation of downstream

ning by selective transport in gravel-bed rivers: model develop-

ment and illustration. Water Resources Research 30: 22512260.

Jarrett RD. 1984. Hydraulics of high-gradient streams. Journal of

Hydraulic Engineering 110: 15191539.

Kellerhals R, Neill CR, Bray DI. 1972. Hydraulic and Geomorphic

Characteristics of Rivers in Alberta. Research Council of Alberta,

River Engineering and Surface Hydrology: Edmonton; Report 72-1,

52 pp.

Lane SN. 2005. Roughness time for a re-evaluation? Earth Surface

Processes and Landforms 30: 251253.

Lee AJ, Ferguson RI. 2002. Velocity and ow resistance in step-pool

streams. Geomorphology 46: 5971.

Li SS, Millar RG, Islam S. 2008. Modelling gravel transport and

morphology for the Fraser River gravel reach, British Columbia.

Geomorphology 95: 206222.

Lpez R, Barragn J, Angels Colomar M. 2007. Flow resistance equa-

tions without explicit estimation of the resistance coefcient for

coarse-grained rivers. Journal of Hydrology 338: 113121.

Parker G, Wilcock PR, Paola C, Dietrich WE, Pitlick J. 2007. Physical

basis for quasi-universal relations describing bankfull hydraulic

geometry of single-thread gravel bed rivers. Journal of Geophysical

Research Earth Surface 112: F04005.

Richards KS. 1982. Rivers: Form and Process in Alluvial Channels.

Methuen: London.

Sargent RJ. 1979. Variation of Mannings n roughness coefcient with

ow in open river channels. Journal of the Institution of Water

Engineers and Scientists 33: 290294.

R. FERGUSON 1876

Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, Vol. 35, 18731876 (2010)

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