Phenomena

When Rivers Break Their Banks

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Rivers often change their course, but they do not always do so gradually. River avulsions are a bit like earthquakes — they happen suddenly and with disastrous potential. Researchers find that these sudden course changes happen when silt builds up in a river and reduces the amount of water it can carry. Eventually, the resistance to flow is large enough that the river bursts its banks in search of an easier route to the sea. That’s a deadly problem for the communities that live nearby and rely on the river’s sedimentation for their fertile farmland. But using small-scale models, scientists are beginning to unravel the physics behind avulsions, bringing hope that they can be predicted or even sustainably averted. (Video and image credit: Science)

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