Laboratory observations and computational results for the response of bedform fields to rapid variations in discharge are compared and discussed. The simple case considered here begins with a relatively low discharge over a flat bed on which bedforms are initiated, followed by a short high-flow period with double the original discharge, during which the morphology of the bedforms adjusts, followed in turn by a relatively long period of the original low discharge. For the grain size and hydraulic conditions selected, the Froude number remains subcritical during the experiment, and sediment moves predominantly as bedload. Observations show rapid development of quasi-two-dimensional bedforms during the initial period of low flow with increasing wavelength and height over the initial low-flow period. When the flow increases, the bedforms rapidly increase in wavelength and height, as expected from other empirical results. When the flow decreases back to the original discharge, the height of the bedforms quickly decreases in response, but the wavelength decreases much more slowly. Computational results using an unsteady two-dimensional flow model coupled to a disequilibrium bedload transport model for the same conditions simulate the formation and initial growth of the bedforms fairly accurately and also predict an increase in dimensions during the high-flow period. However, the computational model predicts a much slower rate of wavelength increase, and also performs less accurately during the final low-flow period, where the wavelength remains essentially constant, rather than decreasing. In addition, the numerical results show less variability in bedform wavelength and height than the measured values; the bedform shape is also somewhat different. Based on observations, these discrepancies may result from the simplified model for sediment particle step lengths used in the computational approach. Experiments show that the particle step length varies spatially and temporally over the bedforms during the evolution process. Assuming a constant value for the step length neglects the role of flow alterations in the bedload sediment-transport process, which appears to result in predicted bedform wavelength changes smaller than those observed. However, observations also suggest that three-dimensional effects play at least some role in the decrease of bedform wavelength, so incorporating better models for particle hop lengths alone may not be sufficient to improve model predictions. ?? 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.