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December 6 2012

Solving the Mystery of River Formation


Look outside after a heavy rain and you may find a miniature Grand Canyon in your backyard, complete with a complex network of tributaries. The precise conditions that cause rivers of all sizes to form branches have long been a mystery; now, a new study pinpoints two opposing physical forces that work together to produce the intricate patterns. The discovery could help scientists better understand rivers at all scales and even on other worlds; for example, the icebound methane rivers on Titan, one of Saturnís moons.

When rain hits a tilted surface, like the side of a mountain or a hill, it tends to flow toward existing depressions. The flow of water erodes the rock or soil, widening and deepening the depressions. Called incision, the process is competitive and even somewhat cannibalistic. As individual rills grow from incision, they capture smaller neighbors, forming tributaries. One would expect incision to spread indefinitely if unchecked, but a process called soil creep smoothes over the land, filling up the cracks with a slow, yet steady, drift of soil.

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