Effects of vegetation on channel morphodynamics: Results and insights from laboratory experiments

Michal Tal, Chris Paola

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

269 Scopus citations


A series of laboratory experiments demonstrates that riparian vegetation can cause a braided channel to self-organize to, and maintain, a dynamic, single-thread channel. The initial condition for the experiments was steady-state braiding in noncohesive sand under uniform discharge. From here, an experiment consisted of repeated cycles alternating a short duration high flow with a long duration low flow, and uniform dispersal of alfalfa seeds over the bed at the end of each high flow. Plants established on freshly deposited bars and areas of braidplain that were unoccupied during low flow. The presence of the plants had the effect of progressively focusing the high flow so that a single dominant channel developed. The single-thread channel self-adjusted to carry the high flow. Vegetation also slowed the rate of bank erosion. Matching of deposition along the point bar with erosion along the outer bend enabled the channel to develop sinuosity and migrate laterally while suppressing channel splitting and the creation of new channel width. The experimental channels spontaneously reproduced many of the mechanisms by which natural meandering channels migrate and maintain a single dominant channel, in particular bend growth and channel cutoff. In contrast with the braided system, where channel switching is a nearly continuous process, vegetation maintained a coherent channel until wholesale diversion of flow via cutoff and/or avulsion occurred, by which point the previous channel tended to be highly unfavorable for flow. Thus vegetation discouraged the coexistence of multiple channels. Varying discharge was key to allowing expression of feedbacks between the plants and the flow and promoting the transition from braiding to a single-thread channel that was then dynamically maintained.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1014-1028
Number of pages15
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number9
StatePublished - Jul 2010


  • Avulsions
  • Bankfull geometry
  • Meandering
  • Physical experiments
  • Riparian vegetation


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