Mud in rivers transported as flocculated and suspended bed material

Michael P. Lamb, Jan de Leeuw, Woodward W. Fischer, Andrew J. Moodie, Jeremy G. Venditti, Jeffrey A. Nittrouer, Daniel Haught, Gary Parker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Riverine transport of silt and clay particles—or mud—builds continental landscapes and dominates the fluxes of sediment and organic carbon across Earth’s surface. Compared with fluxes of sand-sized grains, mud fluxes are difficult to predict. Yet, understanding the fate of muddy river sediment is fundamental to the global carbon cycle, coastal landscape resilience to sea-level rise, river restoration and river–floodplain morphodynamics on Earth and Mars. Mechanistic theories exist for suspended sand transport, but mud in rivers is often thought to constitute washload—sediment with settling velocities so slow that it does not interact with the bed, such that it depends only on upstream supply and is impossible to predict from local hydraulics. To test this hypothesis, we compiled sediment concentration profiles from the literature from eight rivers and used an inversion technique to determine settling rates of suspended mud. We found that mud in rivers is largely flocculated in aggregates that have near-constant settling velocities, independent of grain size, of approximately 0.34 mm s−1, which is 100-fold faster than rates for individual particles. Our findings indicate that flocculated mud is part of suspended bed-material load, not washload, and thus can be physically described by bed-material entrainment theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)566-570
Number of pages5
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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