Rivers may dramatically change course on a fluvial plain. Such an avulsion temporarily leads to two active channels connected at a bifurcation. Here we study the effect of dynamic meandering at the bifurcation and the effect of channel width adjustment to changing discharge in both downstream branches on the evolution of a bifurcation and coexisting channels. As an example, we reconstructed the last major avulsion at the Rhine delta apex.
We combined historical and geological data to reconstruct a slowly developing avulsion process spanning 2000 years and involving channel width adjustment and meandering at the bifurcation. Based on earlier idealised models, we developed a one-dimensional model for long-term morphodynamic prediction of upstream channel and bifurcates connected at the bifurcation node. The model predicts flow and sediment partitioning at the node, including the effect of migrating meanders at the bifurcation and channel width adjustment.
Bifurcate channel width adaptation to changing discharge partitioning dramatically slows the pacing of bifurcation evolution because the sediment balance for width adjustment and bed evolution are coupled. The model further shows that meandering at the bifurcation modulates channel abandonment or enlargement periodically. This explains hitherto unrecognised reactivation signals in the sedimentary record of the studied bifurcation meander belts, newly identified in our geological reconstruction. Historical maps show that bifurcation migration due to meander bend dynamics increases the bifurcation angle, which increases the rate of closure of one bifurcate.
The combination of model and reconstruction identifies the relevant timescales for bifurcation evolution and avulsion duration. These are the time required to fill one downstream channel over one backwater length, the time to translate one meander wavelength downstream and, for strong river banks, the adaptation timescale to adjust channel width. The findings have relevance for all avulsions where channel width can adjust to changing discharge and where meandering occurs. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.