Feedbacks between erosion and sediment transport in experimental bedrock channels

Joel P. Johnson, Kelin X. Whipple

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

119 Scopus citations


Natural bedrock rivers flow in self-formed channels and form diverse erosional morphologies. The parameters that collectively define channel morphology (e.g. width, slope, bed roughness, bedrock exposure, sediment size distribution) all influence river incision rates and dynamically adjust in poorly understood ways to imposed fluid and sediment fluxes. To explore the mechanics of river incision, we conducted laboratory experiments in which the complexities of natural bedrock channels were reduced to a homogenous brittle substrate (sand and cement), a single sediment size primarily transported as bedload, a single erosion mechanism (abrasion) and sediment-starved transport conditions. We find that patterns of erosion both create and are sensitive functions of the evolving bed topography because of feedbacks between the turbulent flow field, sediment transport and bottom roughness. Abrasion only occurs where sediment impacts the bed, and so positive feedback occurs between the sediment preferentially drawn to topographic lows by gravity and the further erosion of these lows. However, the spatial focusing of erosion results in tortuous flow paths and erosional forms (inner channels, scoops, potholes), which dissipate flow energy. This energy dissipation is a negative feedback that reduces sediment transport capacity, inhibiting further incision and ultimately leading to channel morphologies adjusted to just transport the imposed sediment load.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1048-1062
Number of pages15
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Bedrock channel
  • Erosion
  • Henry Mountains
  • Laboratory flume
  • Sediment transport
  • Utah

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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