Effect of Flood Hydrograph Duration, Magnitude, and Shape on Bed Load Transport Dynamics

C. B. Phillips, K. M. Hill, C. Paola, M. B. Singer, D. J. Jerolmack

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Bed load sediment transport is an inherently challenging process to measure within a river, which is further complicated by the typically transient nature of the hydrograph. Here we use laboratory experiments to explore how sediment flux under transient—unsteady and intermittent—flow differ from those under steady flow. For a narrow unimodal sediment distribution, we calculated fluid stress and measured sediment flux for a range of hydrograph durations, magnitudes, shapes, and sequences. Within a hydrograph, we find considerable variability in sediment flux for a given stress above the threshold for motion. However, cumulative bed load flux resulting from a flood scales linearly with the integrated excess transport capacity (flow impulse). This scaling indicates that, to first order, flow magnitude, duration, shape, and sequence are only relevant to bed load flux in terms of their contribution to the total flow impulse, in agreement with prior field results. The flood impulse represents a quantitative parameter through which the effects of transient flow on coarse sediment transport may be parsed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8264-8271
Number of pages8
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 28 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research was supported by a NSF- Postdoctoral Fellowship (EAR-1349776), the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics 2 (NCED2, EAR-1246761), and the NSF INSPIRE program (EAR- 1344280). We thank S. Harrington and K. Francois-King for outstanding laboratory assistance. These experiments were performed at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and benefitted from the technical support of C. Ellis, R. Gabrielson, E. Steen, B. Erickson, and R. Christopher. We thank L. Hsu and J. Myers for assistance with data publication. Finally, we thank S. Chartrand and an anonymous reviewer for comments that increased the clarity of this manuscript. Experimental data and processing codes are publicly available through the SEAD repository (http://doi.org/10.5967/M0S180MK).


  • experiment
  • floods
  • geomorphology
  • hydrograph
  • rivers
  • sediment transport


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