A 184-year record of river meander migration from tree rings, aerial imagery, and cross sections

By: , and 



Channel migration is the primary mechanism of floodplain turnover in meandering rivers and is essential to the persistence of riparian ecosystems. Channel migration is driven by river flows, but short-term records cannot disentangle the effects of land use, flow diversion, past floods, and climate change. We used three data sets to quantify nearly two centuries of channel migration on the Powder River in Montana. The most precise data set came from channel cross sections measured an average of 21 times from 1975 to 2014. We then extended spatial and temporal scales of analysis using aerial photographs (1939–2013) and by aging plains cottonwoods along transects (1830–2014). Migration rates calculated from overlapping periods across data sets mostly revealed cross-method consistency. Data set integration revealed that migration rates have declined since peaking at 5 m/year in the two decades after the extreme 1923 flood (3000 m3/s). Averaged over the duration of each data set, cross section channel migration occurred at 0.81 m/year, compared to 1.52 m/year for the medium-length air photo record and 1.62 m/year for the lengthy cottonwood record. Powder River peak annual flows decreased by 48% (201 vs. 104 m3/s) after the largest flood of the post-1930 gaged record (930 m3/s in 1978). Declining peak discharges led to a 53% reduction in channel width and a 29% increase in sinuosity over the 1939–2013 air photo record. Changes in planform geometry and reductions in channel migration make calculations of floodplain turnover rates dependent on the period of analysis. We found that the intensively studied last four decades do not represent the past two centuries

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title A 184-year record of river meander migration from tree rings, aerial imagery, and cross sections
Series title Geomorphology
DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2017.06.001
Volume 293
Issue Part A
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 13 p.
First page 227
Last page 239
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page