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

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Textbooks
  • Journals
  • The Fluvial System
  • Stream Classification
  • Stream Ecology Concepts and Fluvial Geomorphology
  • Large Wood and Stream Morphology
  • Anthropogenic Modification of Streams
  • Complex Fluvial Response
  • Stream Restoration
  • Sediment Storage and Contaminant Dispersal
  • Statistics in Fluvial Geomorphology
  • Applications of GIS and Remote Sensing
  • Climate Change

Geography Fluvial Geomorphology
Dale K. Splinter, Bryce K. Marston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0126


Fluvial geomorphology is a subdiscipline of geomorphology that investigates how flowing water shapes and modifies Earth’s surface through erosional and depositional processes. The origin of fluvial comes from the Latin fluvialis, from fluvius (river), and its first known usage occurred in the 14th century. Over the last 150 years, fluvial geomorphology has transitioned from a science of qualitative landscape description to a process- and application-based understanding of streams and their connected systems (i.e., floodplains and watersheds). In terms of scope, fluvial geomorphology is the largest subdiscipline of geomorphology. The backbone of fluvial geomorphology is the concept of scale: Fluvial geomorphologists seek to understand how erosional and depositional processes influence stream form and function at varying spatial and temporal scales. A major paradigm shift occurred in fluvial geomorphology during the quantitative revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this period that conceptual system models of stream processes began to be used to explain stream function and behavior at multiple spatial scales. Understanding the scientific nature of stream processes has allowed concepts of fluvial geomorphology to be applied to river management. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, researchers have emphasized interdisciplinary collaboration (stream ecologists, engineers, water resource planners, and land management agencies) pertaining to the management of fluvial systems.

Overviews and Textbooks

Given the rapid advancements within the field of fluvial geomorphology, numerous overviews of the discipline exist and it is impossible to list them all here. The best synopses of the discipline come from peer-reviewed scientific literature, whereas textbooks and monographs provide the basis for understanding content. To understand how fluvial geomorphology has progressed since the 1960s, which is associated with a major paradigm shift in the discipline, consult the works of Wohl 2014 and Thorndycraft, et al. 2008. Numerous textbooks (too many to mention here) have been written on topics in fluvial geomorphology. Wohl 2014 includes a selection of twenty-two fluvial geomorphology textbooks written since 1960 to demonstrate the breadth and development within the discipline; for example, Leopold, et al. 1964, a seminal work in process fluvial geomorphology, was published in 1963 and helped to develop an understanding of fluvial processes and how those processes influence landform development. Over the next couple of decades, additional introductory textbooks supplemented the understanding of processes associated with fluvial geomorphology. These include, but are not limited to, Charlton 2008 and Knighton 1998. As the discipline of fluvial geomorphology has become more specialized, textbooks for specific types of streams have become common. Bridge 2003 is a textbook focused primarily on alluvial streams and floodplains, which provides a well-developed understanding of sedimentary processes. In contrast, Wohl 2000 is a monograph on mountain rivers. In addition to the specialized content of fluvial geomorphology, there has been an increased awareness of the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline. Stream ecologists are well aware that fluvial processes are important in structuring ecosystems. Fluvial geomorphologists that work with stream ecologists or plan to complete aquatic surveys should be exposed to Gordon, et al. 2004.

  • Bridge, J. S. Rivers and Floodplains: Forms, Processes, and Sedimentary Record. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    Textbook provides an overview of sedimentary processes in alluvial channels, floodplain, and sedimentary structures in the rock record. Beneficial text for upper level undergraduates and graduate students with previous course work in higher-level mathematics and advanced sciences.

  • Charlton, Ro. Fundamentals of Fluvial Geomorphology. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Conceptual overview of fluvial geomorphology for upper-level undergraduate students with limited knowledge of high-level mathematics or advanced science.

  • Gordon, Nancy, T. A. McMahon, B. L. Finlayson, C. J. Gippel, and R. J. Nathan. Stream Hydrology: An Introduction for Ecologists. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004.

    This textbook is an excellent source for stream ecologists to understand principles related to fluvial geomorphology. One purpose of the book is to improve communication about the interdisciplinary application of knowledge of stream processes and aquatic habitat.

  • Knighton, David. Fluvial Form and Processes. London: Arnold, 1998.

    This is an upper division textbook for undergraduate or graduate students studying fluvial geomorphology. The book focuses on stream channel processes and how channels adjust to process changes over time.

  • Leopold, L. B., M. G. Wolman, and J. P. Miller. Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology. San Francisco: Freeman, 1964.

    A seminal book that transformed fluvial geomorphology. Provides a collection of process-based concepts that paved the way for advancements in fluvial geomorphology over the next few decades.

  • Thorndycraft, V. R., Gerardo Benito, and K. J. Gregory. “Fluvial Geomorphology: A Perspective on Current Status and Methods.” Geomorphology 98.1–2 (2008): 2–12.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2007.02.023

    Article provides an overview of fluvial geomorphology and its transformation into an interdisciplinary science, and how technological advancements have made the discipline relevant in managing river systems.

  • Wohl, Ellen. Mountain Rivers. Washington, DC: American Geophysical Union, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1029/WM014

    This textbook provides a review of the fluvial geomorphology of mountain rivers and is the first comprehensive book on the topic. It is designed for individuals with a basic understanding of fluvial geomorphology.

  • Wohl, Ellen. “Time and the Rivers Flowing: Fluvial Geomorphology Since 1960.” Geomorphology 216.4 (2014): 263–282.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2014.04.012

    Purpose of this paper is to examine changes in the scope of fluvial geomorphology between the period of 1960 and 2010. Included in the article is a decade-by-decade description of conceptual changes in fluvial geomorphology. Provides a list of other important papers in process fluvial geomorphology.

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