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The problem of underpowered rivers

Worrall, Fred; Burt, Tim P.; Hancock, Gregory R.; Howden, Nicholas J.K.; Wainwright, John

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Tim P. Burt

Gregory R. Hancock

Nicholas J.K. Howden

John Wainwright


This study has hypothesized that for many rivers the trade‐off between flow accumulation and the decrease in slope along channel length means that stream power increases downstream and, moreover, that given the low slope angles in headwater and low‐order streams, they would have insufficient stream power to erode let alone transport sediment. The study considered the stream power profile, the particle travel distances and the application of the Hjulström curve based on the velocity profile of nine, large UK catchments. The study showed that: Some rivers never showed a maximum in their longitudinal stream power profile, implying that some rivers never develop a deposition zone before they discharge at the tidal limit. Particle travel distances during a bankfull discharge event showed that for some rivers 91% of the upper main channel would not be cleared of sediment. Furthermore, while some rivers could transport a 2 mm particle their entire length in one bankfull event, for another river it would take 89 such events. The Hjulström curve shows that for three of the study rivers the upper 20 km of the river was not capable of eroding a 2 μm particle. The study has shown that for all rivers studied, erosion is focused downstream and deposition upstream. Many UK rivers have a dead zone where, on time scales of the order of centuries, no erosion or transport occurs and erosion only occurs in the lower courses of the channel where discharge rather than slope dominates – we propose these as underpowered rivers.


Worrall, F., Burt, T. P., Hancock, G. R., Howden, N. J., & Wainwright, J. (2020). The problem of underpowered rivers. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 45(15), 3869-3878.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 2, 2020
Online Publication Date Oct 19, 2020
Publication Date 2020-12
Deposit Date Apr 20, 2021
Publicly Available Date Apr 21, 2021
Journal Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Print ISSN 0197-9337
Electronic ISSN 1096-9837
Publisher British Society for Geomorphology
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 45
Issue 15
Pages 3869-3878


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Copyright Statement
© 2020 The Authors. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd<br /> <br /> This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial purposes.

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