River Systems and Fluvial Landforms

Big Bend National Park Texas
Big Bend National Park Texas

NPS Photo/Ann Wildermuth

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.

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.

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

In addition to the streams themselves, the depositional habits of fluvial systems produce striking landforms.

A floodplain is the area at the base of a valley, adjacent to the river or stream, covered with unconsolidated sediment deposited by fluvial processes. The river will be immediately flanked by a buildup of sediment that forms natural levees. These provide some defense against flooding, but are occaisionally breached in select areas producing crevasse splays--coarse sediment deposited during high flow events.

Alluvial fans represent one end of an erosional-deposition system linked by a river--the deposition end. Most commonly, in cases where sediment is brought downstream from a mountain and deposited as an alluvial fan, spreading out from the mountain's intersection with the floodplain. Neighboring alluvial fans that coalesce are called bajadas.
Bajada Formation
Alluvial fan and Bajada formation

Trista L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, Colorado State University.

Geological Monitoring

Loading results...


    Fluvial Landforms in Parks
    • Big Bend National Park, Texas—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Big South Fork National River and National Recreation Area, Tennessee and Kentucky—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home ]
    • Bluestone National Scenic River, West Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Buffalo National River, Arkansas—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Canyonlands National Park, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, Washington D.C., Maryland, & West Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Pennsylvania and New Jersey—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Gauley River National Recreation Area, West Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • George Washington Memorial Parkway, Washington D.C.—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Greenbelt Park, Maryland—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Hapers Ferry National Historic Park, West Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Little River Canyon National Preserve, Alabama—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • New River Gorge National River, West Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Noatak National Preserve, Alaska—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Obed National Wild and Scenic River, Tennessee—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home.]
    • Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, Wisconsin—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, Pennsylvania and New York—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, New York—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Yukon-Charley Rivers National Park, Alaska—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
    • Zion National Park, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]


    • Site Index