An experimental study of discharge partitioning and flow structure at symmetrical bifurcations

Robert E. Thomas, Daniel R. Parsons, Steven D. Sandbach, Gareth M. Keevil, Wouter A. Marra, Richard J. Hardy, James L. Best, Stuart N. Lane, Jessica A. Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent research has examined the factors controlling the geometrical configuration of bifurcations, determined the range of stability conditions for a number of bifurcation types and assessed the impact of perturbations on bifurcation evolution. However, the flow division process and the parameters that influence flow and sediment partitioning are still poorly characterized. To identify and isolate these parameters, three-dimensional velocities were measured at 11 cross-sections in a fixed-walled experimental bifurcation. Water surface gradients were controlled, and systematically varied, using a weir in each distributary. As may be expected, the steepest distributary conveyed the most discharge (was dominant) while the mildest distributary conveyed the least discharge (was subordinate). A zone of water surface super-elevation was co-located with the bifurcation in symmetric cases or displaced into the subordinate branch in asymmetric cases. Downstream of a relatively acute-angled bifurcation, primary velocity cores were near to the water surface and against the inner banks, with near-bed zones of lower primary velocity at the outer banks. Downstream of an obtuse-angled bifurcation, velocity cores were initially at the outer banks, with near-bed zones of lower velocities at the inner banks, but patterns soon reverted to match the acute-angled case. A single secondary flow cell was generated in each distributary, with water flowing inwards at the water surface and outwards at the bed. Circulation was relatively enhanced within the subordinate branch, which may help explain why subordinate distributaries remain open, may play a role in determining the size of commonly-observed topographic features, and may thus exert some control on the stability of asymmetric bifurcations. Further, because larger values of circulation result from larger gradient disadvantages, the length of confluence-diffluence units in braided rivers or between diffluences within delta distributary networks may vary depending upon flow structures inherited from upstream and whether, and how, they are fed by dominant or subordinate distributaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2069-2082
Number of pages14
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number15
StatePublished - Dec 2011


  • Bifurcation
  • Diffluence
  • Discharge partitioning
  • Flow structures
  • Flume
  • Stability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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