Biomorphodynamics of river bars in channelized, hydropower-regulated rivers

Serlet, Alyssa (2018) Biomorphodynamics of river bars in channelized, hydropower-regulated rivers. PhD thesis, University of Trento, Queen Mary University of London.

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Over the past 200 years, rivers in industrialized countries have been significantly altered by human interventions such as channelization, hydropower development, and sediment mining causing observable biogeomorphological changes. In the European Alpine region, many large rivers have been impounded and channelized, yet few studies have conducted in-depth research on the temporal patterns of the causes and trajectories of these biogeomorphological responses, in comparison to rivers that can adjust their planform. Moreover, it is well-known that within channelized rivers alternating bars may appear due to an instability of the riverbed, but the development and influence of vegetation on such bars, its feedbacks on the morphodynamics of the bars and the degree to which these mutual interaction processes responds to anthropic stressors related to alterations in the flow and sediment supply regimes has received little attention. The present research aims to disentangle the mechanisms that may determine dramatically diverging biogeomorphological trajectories in regulated Alpine rivers. It further intends to identify the underlying relations of the triad that connects vegetation – sediment – flow regime and its feedbacks in regulated, channelized, rivers with vegetated bars. The methodology comprises an interdisciplinary approach which combines field and historical investigations with theoretical predictions, and integrates a variety of spatial and temporal scales and different levels of detail in characterising processes. Two case studies in the Alpine region (the Isère river in southeast France and the Noce river in northeast Italy) were selected for a quantitative, historical analysis of the bio-morphological trajectories using remotely sensed data to investigate the apparent responses to human-induced modifications of natural processes. Both rivers have been heavily impacted, with a notable increase of human stressors since the mid-20th century which can be associated with the transition of both systems from an initial, stable dynamic state characterized by bars having only sparse colonizing vegetation with a frequent turnover to a new, apparently stable state characterised by reduced morphodynamics and an increased vegetation cover in recent decades. The Isère river, which underwent a shift from unvegetated, migrating bars to vegetated, stable bars, was further explored with a hydromorphodynamic modelling approach to investigate historical changes in riparian vegetation recruitment and survival related to changes in the flow regime. The Windows of Opportunity model was successful at revealing temporal changes in recruitment conditions in response to flow regime alterations. Further results indicated a reduction in relevant high flow events that might be competent to induce large bar migration in the system. Alterations of the flow regime are assumed to have played a major role in vegetation encroachment directly by affecting vegetation recruitment through reduced flow disturbances and indirectly inducing modifications of bar morphodynamics. Field observations of root development were also made on the Noce and Isère rivers, focusing on two species Salix alba and Phalaris arundinacea, with the aim of improving understanding of the role of roots on the presence and movement of vegetated bars. When comparing results from different sites, more predictable linear relationships between root properties and depth below the ground surface were associated with stronger flow regulation. Bar morphology (surface elevation or depth of sedimentation and sediment calibre) and flow regime were found to be the main drivers of root architecture. Furthermore, roots were found to have an important role in the stabilization of the bars with the ability to stabilise fine sediments trapped by the plant’s canopy during phases of bar aggradation. To understand the current state of channelized Alpine rivers, which often show diverging biogeomorphic features, it is necessary to understand the underlying interactions between flow, sediment, and vegetation dynamics. Only through investigating the historical biomorphological evolution of rivers and the main drivers of that evolution it is possible to design measures that can be effective in rehabilitating desired ecosystem functions that have been markedly modified by those state transitions. In summary, this study has provided novel, quantitative insights about the complexity of flow – vegetation – morphology interactions occurring in channelized river systems in relation to anthropogenic stressors causing alteration in their flow and sediment supply regimes. By integrating different approaches, this study has shown how these river systems can be highly sensitive to even small changes in the anthropogenic stressors, depending on the stage in their evolutionary trajectory, which is crucial to be detected to support the development of sustainable management strategies aimed at restoring or improving target riverine functions and processes.

Item Type:Doctoral Thesis (PhD)
Doctoral School:Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering
PhD Cycle:31
Subjects:Area 08 - Ingegneria civile e Architettura > ICAR/01 IDRAULICA
Area 08 - Ingegneria civile e Architettura > ICAR/03 INGEGNERIA SANITARIA-AMBIENTALE
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