Meander from Above

This photo of the Amazon River taken by Astronaut Tim Kopra reveals the many meandering changes of the river’s course. Left untouched by human intervention, rivers tend to get more curvy, or sinuous, over time, simply due to fluid dynamics. Imagine a single bend in a river. Due to conservation of angular momentum, water flows faster around the inside curve of the bend than the outside – just like an ice skater spins faster with her arms pulled in. From Bernoulli’s principle, we know there is an accompanying pressure gradient caused by this velocity difference – with higher pressure near the outer bank and lower pressure on the inner one. This pressure gradient is what guides the water around the bend, keeping the bulk of the fluid moving downstream rather than bending toward either bank.

At the bottom of the river, though, viscosity slows the water down due to the influence of the ground. This slower water, still subject to the same pressure gradient as the rest of the river, cannot maintain its course going downstream. Instead, it gets pushed from the outer bank toward the inner bank in what’s known as a secondary flow. This secondary flow carries sediment away from the outer bank and deposits it on the inner bank, which, over time, makes the river bend more and more pronounced. (Image credit: T. Kopra/NASA; submitted by jshoer)

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