In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rivers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Rivers as Indicators of Paleoenvironmental Conditions
  • Rivers as Indicators of Past Human Environmental Alteration
  • Rivers as Indicators of Contemporary Environmental Conditions
  • Rivers as Sources of Environmental Services
  • Major River Basins

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Environmental Science Rivers
Ellen Wohl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0004


River networks, and even individual river segments, are complex ecosystems that can be studied from many perspectives. Arguably the most common differentiation is between studies that focus on various aspects of rivers, such as contemporary physical processes (river engineering, hydrology, or geomorphology); physical processes over longer time spans (geomorphology); chemical processes (geology or aqueous chemistry); individual species or groups of organisms (fish biology); and biological communities (aquatic and riparian ecology). Each of these approaches to understanding rivers has an extensive technical literature. The works cited in this bibliographic entry draw from these sometimes disparate bodies of literature and focus on rivers in an environmental context rather than treating a specific river as an isolated feature or focusing solely on one component of rivers. River segments and river networks provide a wealth of information about past and contemporary environmental conditions, for rivers inherently integrate fluxes of matter and energy within a landscape through the entity of a drainage basin. The entire land surface that drains to a specified point makes up the drainage basin for that point. In addition to water, sediment, solutes, and organic matter enter the river network via atmospheric, surface, and subsurface pathways. Matter and energy move upstream, laterally, and vertically within a river network, as well as downstream. A well-studied example comes from the upstream migration of spawning salmon that then die and transfer ocean-derived nutrients to the river network and adjacent riparian zone. Because a river so effectively integrates diverse inputs and reflects conditions across the entire drainage basin, investigators have used physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of rivers as metrics for the environmental state of the river itself, and of the larger drainage basin. Three of the sections within this bibliographic entry include works that provide examples of these metrics for prehistoric, historic, and contemporary environmental conditions. Rivers also provide numerous ecosystem or environmental services, such as clean water and recreational fisheries, and another section provides examples of studies focusing on this aspect of rivers. Attempts to manage rivers and preserve desired attributes such as clean water, flood control, or fisheries constitute an important subset of environmental management, and are addressed in the final section of this entry.

General Overviews

The works cited in this section include all aspects of riverine environments, either written for scientists, as in Calow and Petts 1992, or written for a more popular audience, as in Waters 2000 or Middleton 2012. Patrick 1994–2003 represents a hybrid that is accessible to nonspecialists, but contains useful syntheses and overviews, particularly for students starting to learn about rivers or specialists in one area of river science starting to learn about other aspects of the science. The common theme among these works is that rivers—rather than being simple conduits for water, sediment, or fish—are complex environments that interact with the adjacent uplands, oceans, atmosphere, and underground waters.

  • Calow, P., and G. E. Petts, eds. 1992. The rivers handbook: Hydrological and ecological principles. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

    Volume 1 provides a comprehensive review and synthesis of diverse aspects of river physical, chemical, and biological environments and case studies. Volume 2 reviews perturbations and biological impacts, monitoring, modeling, management options, and case studies. Individual chapters are written by recognized experts, and the organization ensures continuity between chapters.

  • Middleton, N. 2012. Rivers: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199588671.001.0001

    Part of a series of very short introductions to diverse topics. This little volume manages to cover physical, biological, historical, and environmental aspects of rivers very concisely and elegantly. A good starter for anyone interested in learning about rivers as environments.

  • Patrick, R. 1994–2003. Rivers of the United States. 5 vols. New York: Wiley.

    Five volumes published between 1994 and 2003 systematically examine chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of US rivers, including regional emphases. Patrick helped to draft the nation’s Clean Water Act. This synthesis of her life’s work on rivers is readily accessible to nonspecialists and provides an excellent overview of river environments.

  • Waters, T. F. 2000. Wildstream: A natural history of the free flowing river. St. Paul, MI: Riparian.

    Although written for a popular audience, this highly readable book aptly summarizes a variety of relevant technical knowledge about rivers, including physical process and form, water chemistry, biological energy sources and river metabolism, and biological communities. Basic technical information is interspersed with numerous specific case studies, here called “RiverSketches.”

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