Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface

Modeling the evolution of channel shape: Balancing computational efficiency with hydraulic fidelity



[1] The cross-sectional shape of a natural river channel controls the capacity of the system to carry water off a landscape, to convey sediment derived from hillslopes, and to erode its bed and banks. Numerical models that describe the response of a landscape to changes in climate or tectonics therefore require formulations that can accommodate evolution of channel cross-sectional geometry. However, fully two-dimensional (2-D) flow models are too computationally expensive to implement in large-scale landscape evolution models, while available simple empirical relationships between width and discharge do not adequately capture the dynamics of channel adjustment. We have developed a simplified 2-D numerical model of channel evolution in a cohesive, detachment-limited substrate subject to steady, unidirectional flow. Erosion is assumed to be proportional to boundary shear stress, which is calculated using an approximation of the flow field in which log-velocity profiles are assumed to apply along vectors that are perpendicular to the local channel bed. Model predictions of the velocity structure, peak boundary shear stress, and equilibrium channel shape compare well with predictions of a more sophisticated but more computationally demanding ray-isovel model. For example, the mean velocities computed by the two models are consistent to within ∼3%, and the predicted peak shear stress is consistent to within ∼7%. Furthermore, the shear stress distributions predicted by our model compare favorably with available laboratory measurements for prescribed channel shapes. A modification to our simplified code in which the flow includes a high-velocity core allows the model to be extended to estimate shear stress distributions in channels with large width-to-depth ratios. Our model is efficient enough to incorporate into large-scale landscape evolution codes and can be used to examine how channels adjust both cross-sectional shape and slope in response to tectonic and climatic forcing.