Can magic sand cause massive degradation of a gravel-bed river at the decadal scale? Shi‑ting River, China

Chenge An, Gary Parker, Marwan A. Hassan, Xudong Fu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Massive bed degradation (20 m in 7 years) has been observed in the Shi‑ting River, Sichuan Province, China, since the 2008 Wenchuan Ms. 8.0 earthquake. The reason for the massive bed degradation has not been well understood. A hypothesis has been proposed that relates bed degradation to the augmentation of sand supply after the earthquake. The effect of sand on gravel mobility (magic sand effect) has long been observed in laboratory experiments. In this paper, we study whether the augmentation of sand supply and its magic sand effect can lead to the observed massive degradation at decadal scales. A one-dimensional river morphodynamic model is implemented to study the problem in general at field scale and in context of the gravel-bed Shi‑ting River. Sediment transport is calculated with the Wilcock and Crowe (2003) relation, in which the magic sand effect is explicitly embedded in terms of a function relating reference Shields number to the surface sand fraction. We find that the augmentation of gravel supply leads to bed aggradation, whereas the augmentation of sand supply can indeed lead to bed degradation and surface fining. The magnitude and timescale of bed degradation are not sensitive to the sand supply rate but are sensitive to the flood intermittency factor, i. e., the fraction of time the river is in flood. However, an unrealistic flood intermittency factor (≥0.3) would be required in order to match the observed timescale of bed degradation, thus indicating that the magic sand effect might not be the governing reason for massive bed degradation in the Shi‑ting River, and by implication in gravel-bed rivers in general. Our simulation results also indicate that despite the fact that magic sand effects are not explicitly included in most sediment transport relations, they are at least partly built in via the hiding function that is contained in most sediment transport relations for gravel-sand mixtures. While here we use the Shi‑ting River as an example, our results have applicability to gravel-bed rivers subjected to augmentation in sand supply in general.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-158
Number of pages12
StatePublished - Feb 15 2019


  • Degradation
  • Earthquake
  • Gravel-bed
  • Magic sand
  • Shi‑ting River

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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