Sediment Load and Grain Size Controls on Channel Migration Patterns in Experimental Deltas

Dan Cazanacli, Chris Paola, Arvind Singh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding channel migration is essential in interpreting long-term evolution of fluvial systems and their deposits. Using data from an experimental delta, we analyzed the kinematics of the upstream channel and assessed the relative dominance of continuous lateral channel migration versus abrupt changes (i.e., avulsions). Detailed investigation of channel centerline location at minute intervals reveals a short-term correlation between the magnitude of migration rates measured at the same location and a spatial correlation that diminishes with distance between points. The main finding is that the channel migrates across the entire deltaic domain without large and abrupt lateral shifts but through continuous lateral migration at variable rates. Long periods of back and forth small moves are separated by short bursts of rapid lateral migration. This finding contradicts the default expectation that that aggrading systems are characterized by avulsions and suggests that highly mobile rivers tend to avulse less. We contrast this with another experiment conducted under similar conditions but with finer sediment supplied at a lower rate which shows drastically less lateral migration; the kinematics is instead dominated by periodic flow reconfiguration episodes akin to avulsions, an indication that channel migration-style depends on the sediment load. The characteristics of these two experiments parallel two regions of the Mississippi River, the meandering and highly mobile alluvial plain and the less dynamic deltaic region, suggesting that bedload sediment deposition at the transition into backwater zone plays an important role in re-shaping the river planform and migration style.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021JF006402
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are indebted to St. Anthony Fall Laboratory community, particularly to Chris Ellis and Jim Mullin, for their generous assistance with the experiments. We thank the Editor, Associate Editor, Liz Hajek, and two anonymous reviewers whose suggestions and constructive comments substantially improved our presentation and refined our interpretations. D.C. acknowledges the support provided by Shell Oil Company. A.S. acknowledges partial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant EAR‐1854452.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • avulsion
  • channel kinematics
  • lateral mobility
  • migration rate
  • sediment flux


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