• braided river;
  • meandering river;
  • anabranching;
  • scroll bar;
  • chute bar


Our objective is to understand general causes of different river channel patterns. In this paper we compare an empirical stream power-based classification and a physics-based bar pattern predictor. We present a careful selection of data from the literature that contains rivers with discharge and median bed particle size ranging over several orders of magnitude with various channel patterns and bar types, but no obvious eroding or aggrading tendency. Empirically a continuum is found for increasing specific stream power, here calculated with pattern-independent variables: mean annual flood, valley gradient and channel width predicted with a hydraulic geometry relation. ‘Thresholds’, above which certain patterns emerge, were identified as a function of bed sediment size. Bar theory predicts nature and presence of bars and bar mode, here converted to active braiding index (Bi). The most important variables are actual width–depth ratio and nonlinearity of bed sediment transport. Results agree reasonably well with data. Empirical predictions are somewhat better than bar theory predictions, because the bank strength is indirectly included in the empirical prediction. In combination, empirical and theoretical prediction provide partial explanations for bar and channel patterns. Increasing potential-specific stream power implies more energy to erode banks and indeed correlates to channels with high width–depth ratio. Bar theory predicts that such rivers develop more bars across the width (higher Bi). At the transition from meandering to braiding, weakly braided rivers and meandering rivers with chutes are found. Rivers with extremely low stream power and width–depth ratios hardly develop bars or dynamic meandering and may be straight or sinuous or, in case of disequilibrium sediment feed, anastomosing. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.