The life of a meander bend: Connecting shape and dynamics via analysis of a numerical model

Jon Schwenk, Stefano Lanzoni, Efi Foufoula-Georgiou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Analysis of bend-scale meandering river dynamics is a problem of theoretical and practical interest. This work introduces a method for extracting and analyzing the history of individual meander bends from inception until cutoff (called "atoms") by tracking backward through time the set of two cutoff nodes in numerical meander migration models. Application of this method to a simplified yet physically based model provides access to previously unavailable bend-scale meander dynamics over long times and at high temporal resolutions. We find that before cutoffs, the intrinsic model dynamics invariably simulate a prototypical cutoff atom shape we dub simple. Once perturbations from cutoffs occur, two other archetypal cutoff planform shapes emerge called long and round that are distinguished by a stretching along their long and perpendicular axes, respectively. Three measures of meander migration - growth rate, average migration rate, and centroid migration rate - are introduced to capture the dynamic lives of individual bends and reveal that similar cutoff atom geometries share similar dynamic histories. Specifically, through the lens of the three shape types, simples are seen to have the highest growth and average migration rates, followed by rounds, and finally longs. Using the maximum average migration rate as a metric describing an atom's dynamic past, we show a strong connection between it and two metrics of cutoff geometry. This result suggests both that early formative dynamics may be inferred from static cutoff planforms and that there exists a critical period early in a meander bend's life when its dynamic trajectory is most sensitive to cutoff perturbations. An example of how these results could be applied to Mississippi River oxbow lakes with unknown historic dynamics is shown. The results characterize the underlying model and provide a framework for comparisons against more complex models and observed dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)690-710
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research F: Earth Surface
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015


  • bend scale
  • cutoff
  • meander dynamics
  • meander migration
  • oxbow
  • planform dynamics


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