Morphodynamics of subaqueous levee formation: Insights into river mouth morphologies arising from experiments



[1] Levee formation by deposition from sediment-laden flows debouching into open waters has been conceptually and analytically linked to jet hydrodynamics since the middle of the 20th century. Despite this long-standing association between jets and levees, the morphodynamics controlling subaqueous levee development remain largely unquantified and poorly understood. Here we report the results of physical experiments on subaqueous levee development modeled on floodplain tie channel processes. In the laboratory, we created subaqueous levees from a sediment-laden jet entering a basin of still water. Levee formation occurred where the local shear velocity of the jet declined below the critical shear velocity for entrainment of sediment into suspension. The rate of levee deposition depended on the rate of lateral sediment transfer to the jet margins and the settling velocity of suspended sediment. In our friction-dominated flows, lateral sediment flux to the levees was primarily due to dispersive lateral transport driven by turbulence. High rates of sediment transfer from the jet core to the margins led to levee growth that outpaced deposition along the flow centerline. Under hypopycnal conditions, we failed to produce levees. We observed distinct differences in levee morphology due to changes in the size and density of suspended sediment under identical hydrodynamic conditions. Our experimental results and review of published data on hypopycnal river mouths suggest that suspended sediment characteristics, relative magnitude of bed friction, and channel outlet aspect ratios may have a more significant influence on river mouth morphology than the buoyancy of discharging waters as envisioned in existing conceptual models.