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River Landscapes

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River Landscapes

While only being a tiny fraction of the Earth’s total space, rivers have been focal points in geography for centuries. They supply drinking water, carry people and goods, and pose themselves as obstacles to get across. Rivers are not just simple trickles of water flowing across the land, and we’ll take a closer look into how rivers impact landscapes and what they are comprised of.

River landscapes meaning

When we talk about river landscapes, sometimes called riverscapes, we mean the formations of the land in and around rivers as well as the features of the rivers themselves. Rivers and the land have a back-and-forth relationship, each one impacting the other in different ways. If you’ve ever stood on a riverbank or looked from a bridge and seen a river flow and meander in different directions, that’s all part of the river landscape.

River landscapes and processes

While every river is unique, there are some river landscapes and processes that you’ll find with every river in the world. Below we’ll examine some of these processes and features in more detail.

Source

Every river begins at a source, which typically is numerous sources of water feeding into the river. A spring at the top of a hill, bubbling water up from the ground which then begins to flow downhill could be the source of a river. It’s important to understand that rivers have to start somewhere uphill and end downhill so they can flow, otherwise they would just be a very long lake! A river doesn’t only get its water from the first source, however, and is fed from many other sources along its route with smaller streams flowing into the larger river. These smaller streams are known as tributaries. All the sources and streams that feed into the river form what is called a drainage basin or watershed.

Drainage Basin: A drainage basin is an area of land where water collects and flows into a larger body of water. The water may come from precipitation such as rain, snowmelt, or groundwater below.

River landscapes Figure 1 Source of River Wey StudySmarterFig. 1 Source of the River Wey, a tributary of the Thames River in England

Rivers engage in three important processes that change the landscape around them: erosion, transportation, and deposition. Let’s take a closer look at each of these three processes.

Erosion

When the power of the water chips away at the dirt, rocks, and sediment in and around the river, we call this process erosion. Vertical erosion is when the bottom of the river gets stripped away, and lateral erosion is when it occurs on the sides of the river. While the water itself causes erosion, rocks carried by the flow can also chip away at surfaces, as well as chemicals in the water dissolving certain materials. Erosion is a pivotal force in making rivers wider and deeper as well as shaping the landscapes around them.

Transportation

Different sizes of rocks and particles move along with the water as the river flows downstream, and this process is called transportation. Some particles are small enough to become dissolved into the water, while large rocks may only be able to gently slide and roll along the riverbed. Transportation is directly linked to erosion, as many of the objects that are eroded end up becoming transported in the river water.

Deposition

As a river loses the energy to keep breaking up surfaces and transporting material, it ends up dropping that material in what is called deposition. Naturally, the heaviest rocks and sediment end up getting deposited first as a river’s flow slows followed by the lighter substances.

These three processes take place at different parts of the river, and next, we will look at the various courses of a river and river landscapes characteristics.

River landscapes characteristics

The main river landscapes characteristics can be divided into three sections of the river, each with distinctive features.

Upper course

The first and steepest part of a river is its upper course. The river and various streams flowing into it in this phase tend to have steep riverbanks resembling a valley. A lot of erosion takes place at this phase and dramatic features like waterfalls are also not uncommon. As more water collects the river gains volume and its velocity, or speed increases.

Middle course

In the next part of the river, the middle course finds the river deeper and with more energy than the upper course. Erosion and transportation take place in this phase with the river landscape being flatter. The middle course also creates river landscapes called meanders, which are bends in the river resembling a snake. The primary driving force behind the river landscapes in the middle course is lateral erosion, carving away at the sides of the river.

Lower course

Finally, the lower course is the widest and deepest point of a river, gradually slowing down before reaching the sea or a large body of water. The river landscape is very flat and forms floodplains, which during periods of flooding become filled with water and result in lots of deposition. At the very end of the river deltas often form, where the river splits into many smaller channels in a sort of fan shape, and sediments are deposited before finally reaching the sea.

River deltas across the globe are important agricultural areas and population centres. The deposition of sediments provides crucial nutrients and the ample supply of water makes farming in these areas highly productive. In Egypt, over 95 percent of its population lives within a couple of kilometres of the Nile River and delta!

River landscapes Fig. 3 Nile River from space at night StudySmarter Fig. 3 View of the Nile River and Delta from space at night, notice the bright lights easily showing the shape of the delta

Long profile of a river

There are several perspectives to looking at a river, one of them is as if you’re looking from the side along the entire length of the river – this is called the long profile of a river. As we discussed earlier, rivers have to start higher than where they end otherwise they wouldn’t be able to flow, and thus most long profiles of a river appear as if they are gradually sloping downwards. Check out the diagram below to see what a long profile of a river looks like.

Cross profile of a river

Instead of looking from the side, as with the long profile, cross profiles are as if you are looking straight at the river, being able to see how deep it is, and the shapes of the riverbed and riverbanks. For example, if you were looking at the cross profile of a river during the upper course, it would look V-shaped, owing to the steep slopes of the riverbank and the narrow channel of the stream.

River Landscapes in the UK

River landscapes have impacted the UK throughout its history and continue to play a role in its development and life today. Most of the UK’s largest cities are built along rivers, providing sources of water and a means for transportation of goods- the River Thames is a classic example of this!

Far from being just an asset, the possibility of damaging floods must be mitigated. Levees and other structures are built to prevent rivers from overflowing and damaging towns during periods where lots of rain can lead to flooding.

River Landscapes - Key takeaways

  • River landscapes are the overall formations of a river and the land surrounding it.
  • Rivers engage in three processes that impact the land: erosion, transportation, and deposition.
  • A river can be divided into three sections: the upper, middle, and lower course, each with differing landscapes.
  • The long and cross profile of a river is a useful way to illustrate the difference between the three courses of the river and show their main characteristics.

Frequently Asked Questions about River Landscapes

The physical appearance of the river and the land around it are river landscapes. Rivers take many different shapes along their course and subsequently impact the land around them.


  • Source

  • Tributaries

  • Valleys

  • Waterfall

  • Delta

  • Meander

  • Floodplain

The UK has all the main types of river landscapes, including tributaries, valleys, waterfalls, deltas, and meanders. However, certain landscapes like rivers in glacial landscapes, are not present in the UK.


There are three primary river processes:

  • Erosion: The removal of materials from the riverbed and riverbank by the force of the river.

  • Transportation: The carrying of materials suspended in the river water or being moved by it.

  • Deposition: The dropping of transported material along the riverbank, riverbed, or floodplains during flood periods.

The long and cross profile of a river are two ways to look at and understand a river and its landscape. A long profile is a diagram showing the river’s course from beginning to end as if you are viewing it from the side. A cross profile is looking at a river dead-on, revealing its depth, shape, and formations of the surrounding landscape.


Final River Landscapes Quiz

Question

What is a river landscape?

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Answer

The overall formations of the land surrounding the river and the river itself.

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Which of the following are features of a river landscape?

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Answer

Tributary

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What is the source of a river?

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The origin of water for a river.

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True or False: Rivers can sometimes start downhill and end uphill

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Answer

False

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What is a drainage basin?

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An area of land where water collects and flows into a larger river or body of water.

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Which of the following are river processes?

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Answer

Meandering

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What does erosion do?

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Answer

It chips away at surfaces along the riverbank and riverbed, changing the land shape and moving material.

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When it comes to river processes, what is transportation?

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The movement of materials like sediment and rocks in a river.

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True or false: Heavier rocks get deposited first before smaller and lighter ones

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True

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True or false: The upper course is the first section of a river

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True

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Which section of a river is the steepest?

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Upper course

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In the middle course of a river, what two processes primarily take place?

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Erosion and transportation

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True or false: during the lower course, rivers are generally at their widest and deepest

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True

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What is a delta?

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A fan shaped formation at the end of a river consisting of numerous smaller streams before emptying into the ocean.

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What perspective is a long profile of a river taken from?

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As if you are looking at the whole of the river from the side.

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Which of the following are a type of flood?

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Coastal

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Why are flash floods particularly dangerous?

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Because they occur suddenly and with little warning.

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True or false: Excess rainfall can cause flooding.

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True

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How does the material the ground is composed of impact flooding?

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If the ground is made of materials that absorb water well, flooding can be mitigated. If the surface does not absorb water well, like concrete, it increases risks of flooding.

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Why are sewer floods particularly dangerous to human health?

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Sewers contain human waste and other harmful substances, and if it floods an area sewage can result in the spread of harmful diseases.

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What is a storm surge?

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A storm surge is a rush of water from the ocean in coastal areas resulting from severe storms like hurricanes.

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What most commonly causes tsunamis?

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Earthquakes on the ocean floor.

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Would a flash flood be more of a risk in a low part of a dry lake, or high part of a dense forest? Why?

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Low part of a dry lake, because water pools at the lowest point and dry ground without vegetation does not absorb water well.

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True or false: Floods can cause mould and mildew in homes, but it's of little concern to human health.

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False, mould and mildew buildup can lead to respiratory diseases.

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How is climate change making flooding more common?

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Increased rainfall, more intense storms, and polar ice melt as a result of climate change are making flooding more common.

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In what way can flooding be good for the environment?

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Flooding can allow the spreading of nutrient-rich sediments which improve the health of plants in a habitat. It's also useful for replenishing groundwater supplies and wetlands.

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Is tide rolling in an out an example of flooding?

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No, tide is a natural variation in the water levels of an ocean.

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Which of the following are causes of flooding?

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Irrigation

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What is a man-made example of a flash flood?

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Dam breaks

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Why is it particularly challenging to rescue people and bring critical supplies during a flood?

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Flooding does not allow easy transportation access, so boats and helicopters need to be employed to reach people in need. A loss of power may also make it harder to reach emergency services.

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What river flooded in Sheffield in 2007?

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The River Don.

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Was the flooding in 2007 only in Sheffield?

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No, flooding occurred around the United Kingdom.

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What was the primary driver of the flooding throughout the UK in 2007?

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Rainfall

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True or false: Sheffield has largely flat terrain

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False, Sheffield has a very dynamic terrain.

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True or false: Paved surfaces have little impact on flooding.

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False, paved surfaces allow water to funnel instead of absorbing into the ground, making flood risks higher.

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What caused the Great Sheffield Flood in 1864?

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The breaking of a dam upriver on the River Don.

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What positive changes came of the Great Sheffield Flood?

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Improvements to the safety standards and quality of dams in the UK.

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Which of the following buildings were damaged in 2007 in Sheffield?

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Hillsborough Stadium

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What is the estimated total cost of repairs in the aftermath of flooding in Sheffield?

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£50 million

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How many people were moved to temporary shelters during the 2007 floods in Sheffield?

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900 people.

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True or false: The City of Sheffield has done nothing to prevent another flood from occurring. 

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False, the City has dedicated funds to improve flood defenses like flood walls and gates.

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Was the flooding in 2019 just as bad as in 2007 in Sheffield?

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No, it was not as severe or damaging, but still showed how flooding remains a threat in Sheffield.

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True or False:

Lag time is the time between the highest amount of rainfall and the highest discharge.

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True

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What does the y-axis on the hydrograph represent?

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River discharge measured in cubic metres per second (cumecs)

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Hydrographs allow us to predict _____.

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Flooding

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What is the rising limb on a hydrograph?

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The rising limb shows how river discharge increases due to rainfall.

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On a hydrograph, the _____ is the point where river discharge is at its highest.

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Peak discharge

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Which of the following affects lag time and shape of the hydrograph? Select all that apply.

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Size of the drainage basin

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What are the two types of hydrographs about which you learnt?

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Flood hydrographs

Storm hydrographs

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Which of the following statements is true?

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Answer

Drainage basins with steep slopes have a longer lag time and a lower peak discharge than those with gentle slopes.

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