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Keywords:

  • anabranching;
  • wandering river;
  • channel bifurcation;
  • diffluence;
  • gravel–cobble bedded river;
  • stability

Abstract

This study presents the first detailed field-based analysis of the morphology of bifurcations within anabranching cobble–gravel rivers. Bifurcations divide the flow of water and sediment into downstream anabranches, thereby influencing the characteristics of the anabranches and the longevity of river islands. The history, morphology, bed grain size, and flow vectors at five bifurcations on the Renous River, New Brunswick, Canada, were studied in detail. The angles of bifurcations within five anabranching rivers in the Miramichi basin were investigated. The average bifurcation angle was 47°, within the range of values cited for braided river bifurcations. Bifurcation angle decreased when anabranches were of similar length. Shields stresses in channels upstream of bifurcations were lower than reported values for braided rivers. Stable bifurcations displayed lower Shields stresses than unstable bifurcations, contrary to experimental results from braided river bifurcations. Bifurcations in anabranching rivers are stabilized by vegetation that slows channel migration and helps to maintain a uniform upstream flow field. The morphology of stable bifurcations enhances their stability. A large bar, shaped like a shallow ramp that increases in elevation to floodplain level, forms at stable bifurcations. Floodplains at stable bifurcations accrete upstream at rates between 0·9 and 2·5 m a−1. Bars may also form within the entrance of an anabranch downstream of the bifurcation node. These bars are associated with bifurcation instability, forming after a period of stability or an avulsion. Channel abandonment occurs when a bar completely blocks the entrance to one anabranch. The stability of channels upstream of bifurcations and the location of bars at bifurcations influence bifurcation stability and the maintenance of river anabranching in the long term. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.