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Gravel Transport and Morphological Change in Braided Sunwapta River, Alberta, Canada

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Earth Surface Processes and Landforms

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The relation between morphological change and patterns of variation in bedload transport rate in braided streams was observed by repeated, daily topographic surveys over a 25 day study period in a 60 m reach of the proglacial Sunwapta River, Alberta, Canada. There are two major periods of morphological change, each lasting several days and each involving the complete destruction and reconstruction of bar complexes. Bar complex destruction was caused by redirection of the flow and by downstream extension of the confluence scour zone upstream. Reconstruction involved accretion of unit bars on bar head, flank and tail and in one case was initiated by disection of a large, lobate unit bar. High rates of sediment movement, measured from net scour and fill of the cross-sections, coincided with these morphological changes. Sediment was supplied from both bed and bank erosion, and patterns and distances of transfer were highly variable. Rates of transport estimated by matching upstream erosional volumes with downstream deposition were much greater than those estimated from either a step-length approach or a sediment budget. Measurements of scour and fill and observations of morphological change indicate that step lengths (virtual transport distances) were typically 40-100 m during a diurnal discharge cycle. Shorter step lengths occurred when transfer was confined to a single anabranch and longer steps involved channel changes at the scale of the entire reach. Sediment budgeting was used to describe the spatial patterns of sediment transport associated with the morphological changes and to estimate minimum daily reach-averaged transport rates. Mean bedload transport rates correlate with discharge, but with considerable scatter. The largest deviations from the mean relation can be tied to phases of channel incision, bank erosion, scour hole migration, bar deposition and channel filling apparently controlled by changes and fluctuations in sediment supply from upstream, independent of discharge. These are interpreted as field evidence of 'autopulses' or 'macropulses' in bedload transport, previously observed only in laboratory models of braided streams.

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