River Systems and Fluvial Landforms

Big Bend National Park Texas
Big Bend National Park Texas

NPS Photo/Ann Wildermuth

[Site Under Development]


Fluvial systems are dominated by rivers and streams. Stream erosion may be the most important geomporphic agent. Fluvial processes sculpt the landscape, eroding landforms, transporting sediment, and depositing it to create new landforms. Human civilization and ecosystems alike are dependent on fluvial systems. Rivers provide water for hydroelectric power and shipping, as well as supporting stream-side wetlands (riparian areas) that are critical for clean water and provide rich habitat.

illustration of river system showing 3 part upper, middle, and lower courses.

Trista L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, Colorado State University.

The drainage basin is the fundamental landscape unit in a fluvial processes. This is a system of a primary, or trunk, river and its tributaries. These watersheds are separated from their neighbors by a divide; a highpoint where water flows in different directions on either side.

  • Upper Basin
  • Mid-basin
    Low gradiant valleys and flood plains
  • Lower Basin
    Depositional Zone

Flood-plain Landforms

In addition to the streams themselves, the depositional habits of fluvial systems produce striking landforms. Fluvial deposits are sediments deposited by the flowing water of a stream.

  • Flood Plains
    A flood plain is the relatively flat surface adjacent to the river or stream. During floods, when the stream overflows its banks, water flows over the flood plain and deposits sediment. Through fluvial processes streams construct flood plains that accommodate their maximum flood capacity.
  • Natural Levees
    River may be immediately flanked by a buildup of sediment that forms natural levees. These provide some defense against flooding, but are occaisionally breached in areas producing flood-plain splays—coarse fan-shaped deposit of sediment created during high flow events.
  • Braided Streams
  • Meandering Channels

Channel Morphology

The shape that a stream takes, or its channel morphology, is a function of the sediment carried and deposited by the stream. This divides medium to low gradiant streams into two general categories, meandering and braided.

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      Fluvial Landforms in Parks


      Contiguous U.S.

      Last updated: December 6, 2018


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