Sediment transport is an intrinsically stochastic process, and measurement of bed load in the environment is further complicated by the unsteady nature of river flooding. Here we present a methodology for analyzing sediment tracer data with unsteady forcing. We define a dimensionless impulse by integrating the cumulative excess shear velocity for the duration of measurement, normalized by grain size. We analyze the dispersion of a plume of cobble tracers in a very flashy stream over two years. The mean and variance of transport distance collapse onto well-defined linear and power-law relations, respectively, when plotted against cumulative dimensionless impulse. Data suggest that the asymptotic limit of bed load tracer dispersion is super diffusive, in line with a broad class of geophysical flows exhibiting strong directional asymmetry (advection), thin-tailed step lengths and heavy-tailed waiting times. The impulse framework justifies the use of quasi-steady flow approximations for long-term river evolution modeling.
Phillips, C. B., Martin, R. L., and Jerolmack D. J. (2013): Impulse framework for unsteady flows reveals super-diffusive bed load transport. Geophysical Research Letters. DOI: 10.1002/grl.50323
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.