Dynamics and mechanics of bed-load tracer particles
Abstract. Understanding the mechanics of bed load at the flood scale is necessary to link hydrology to landscape evolution. Here we report on observations of the transport of coarse sediment tracer particles in a cobble-bedded alluvial river and a step-pool bedrock tributary, at the individual flood and multi-annual timescales. Tracer particle data for each survey are composed of measured displacement lengths for individual particles, and the number of tagged particles mobilized. For single floods we find that measured tracer particle displacement lengths are exponentially distributed; the number of mobile particles increases linearly with peak flood Shields stress, indicating partial bed load transport for all observed floods; and modal displacement distances scale linearly with excess shear velocity. These findings provide quantitative field support for a recently proposed modeling framework based on momentum conservation at the grain scale. Tracer displacement is weakly negatively correlated with particle size at the individual flood scale; however cumulative travel distance begins to show a stronger inverse relation to grain size when measured over many transport events. The observed spatial sorting of tracers approaches that of the river bed, and is consistent with size-selective deposition models and laboratory experiments. Tracer displacement data for the bedrock and alluvial channels collapse onto a single curve – despite more than an order of magnitude difference in channel slope – when variations of critical Shields stress and flow resistance between the two are accounted for. Results show how bed load dynamics may be predicted from a record of river stage, providing a direct link between climate and sediment transport.