Research project

Climatic and Autogenic Controls on the Morphodynamics of Mega-Rivers

Project overview

The world's largest rivers transport ~19 billion tonnes of sediment each year, with a significant fraction being sequestered in the large deltas that are home to 14% of the world's population. Most (>70%) of these large deltas are under threat from rising sea levels, ground surface subsidence & declining riverine sediment supply required for delta construction. However, while measurements & projections of sea level rise & subsidence exist for many deltas, data quantifying historic changes in fluvial sediment supply are sparse, limiting our understanding of how delta building is related to climatic fluctuations. This situation reflects the complexity of controls on river sediment loads, which include the influence of climate & land use change in upland areas, dam construction, & flood driven storage & remobilisation of sediment within the extensive floodplains that characterise the lowland reaches ("sediment transfer zones") of the world's major rivers. This project will provide the first comprehensive quantification of these controls on riverine sediment fluxes for one of the world's largest rivers (the Mekong), leading to new generic understanding of the relationships between climatic variability, fluvial processes & sediment flux to deltaic zones & the ocean. To meet this aim we will develop a new generic simulation model that will, for the very first time, quantify the effects of climatic & morphological controls on all individual components, & at sub-annual resolution, of the alluvial sediment transfer budget of a large river. The approach is to use a hydrological model to predict sediment supplied from the catchment to the head of the river's sediment transfer reach (the part of a river that links sediment source areas upstream with sediment sinks downstream). Within the transfer reach the model will account for the key morphodynamic processes of river bed & bank erosion, & floodplain sedimentation, which either supply material to the transfer reach, or store the material for later release. The model will be parameterised & validated using targeted field data that we will collect in this proposal. We will run the model to explore historical trends of within-reach sediment fluxes over a multi-decadal period encompassing the last 50+ yrs. The data derived from our simulation model will be unique: the very first annually resolved mega-river sediment budget encompassing a multi-decadal period. These data will enable us to explore a series of specific research questions: What is the net effect on the Mekong sediment load of sediment exchanges within the alluvial transfer reach? Do sediment fluxes associated with floodplain storage & bank erosion promote a net increase or reduction in efflux from the transfer zone? How large is this modulating effect in both absolute & relative terms? How strong is the interannual variability in this modulation, & what factors drive this? In fact, we expect interannual variability to reflect the net effect of changes in the various components of the budget linked to specific climate indices that control each component. This will be explored by testing specific hypotheses concerning (i) the role of specific modes of climate variability (Indian Ocean Dipole & the El-Niño Southern Oscillation) in modulating sediment transfer, and; (ii) the ways in which extreme events (associated with tropical cyclones) control river bank erosion & floodplain deposition. Predicting fluvial sediment transfer through one of the world's great rivers is a scientific challenge that is novel, timely & significant. Addressing this challenge will improve our ability to predict sediment transfer from 'source-to-sink' thereby aiding (i) interpretations of floodplain sedimentary records, (ii) understanding of how sediment, nutrient & carbon fluxes respond to climate, (iii) assessment of changes in flood risk within deltas, & (iv) the physical processes by which ecosystem services within large rivers are sustained.


Lead researcher

Professor Steve Darby

Associate Dean Research

Research interests

  • River and coastal flooding - relationships between geomorphology and flooding in rivers and deltas
  • Biogeomorphology - interactions between river processes and life
  • River bank erosion processes
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Other researchers

Professor Julian Leyland


Research interests

  • Fluvial and Intertidal Geomorphology
  • Remote Environmental Sensing
  • UAVs, USVs and Autonomy in Geoscience
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Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

Research outputs

Stephen E. Darby, Peter G. Langdon, James L. Best, Julian Leyland, Christopher R. Hackney, Mackenzie Marti, Peter R. Morgan, Savuth Ben, Rolf Aalto, Daniel R. Parsons, Andrew P. Nicholas & Melanie J. Leng, 2020, Quaternary Science Reviews, 236
Type: article
Christopher Hackney, Stephen Darby, Daniel Parsons, Julian Leyland, James Best, Rolf Aalto, Andrew Nicholas & Robert Houseago, 2020, Nature Sustainability, 3(3), 217-225
Type: article
Alexander Chapman & Stephen Darby, 2018, Ecosystem Services, 32(Part A), 110-111
Type: article
G.M. Kondolf, Rafael Schmitt, Stephen Darby, Paul Carling, M. Arias, Simone Bizzo, Andrea Castelletti, Tom Cochrane, Stan Gibson, Matti Kummu, Chantha Oeurng, Zan Rubin & Thomas Wild, 2018, Science of the Total Environment, 625, 114-134
Type: article
Paul Carling, Hai, Quang Trieu, Duncan Hornby, He Qing Huang, Stephen Darby, David Sear, Craig Hutton, C. Hill, Z Ali, A Ahmed, I Iqbal & Z Hussain, 2018, Geomorphology
Type: article