Influence of Rarely Mobile Boulders on Channel Width and Slope: Theory and Field Application

Ron Nativ, Jens M. Turowski, Liran Goren, Jonathan B. Laronne, J. Bruce H. Shyu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Large, rarely mobile boulders are observed globally in mountainous bedrock channels. Recent studies suggest that high concentrations of boulders could be associated with channel morphological adjustment. However, a process-based understanding of large boulder effects on channel morphology is limited, and data are scarce and ambiguous. Here, we develop a theory of steady-state channel width and slope as a function of boulder concentration. Our theory assumes that channel morphology adjusts to maintain two fundamental mass balances: (a) grade, in which the channel transports the same sediment flux downstream despite boulders acting as roughness elements and (b) bedrock erosion, by which the channel erodes at the background tectonic uplift rate. Model predictions are normalized by a reference, boulder-free channel width and slope, accounting for variations due to sediment supply, discharge, and lithology. Models are tested against a new data set from the Liwu River, Taiwan, showing steepening and widening with increasing boulder concentration. Whereas one of the explored mechanisms successfully explains the observed steepening trend, none of the models accuratly account for the observed width variability. We propose that this contrast arises from different adjustment timescales: while sediment bed slope adjusts within a few floods, width adjustment takes a much longer time. Overall, we find that boulders represent a significant perturbation to fluvial landscapes. Channels tend to respond by forming a new morphology that differs from boulder-free channels. The general approach presented here can be further expanded to explore the role of other hydrodynamic effects associated with large, rarely mobile boulders.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2021JF006537
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2022


  • bedrock erosion
  • boulders
  • grade
  • sediment transport
  • slope
  • width

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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