Prancavic and Kirchner, 2019


Topographic controls on the extension and retraction of flowing streams

Prancevic, J.P.; Kirchner, J.W. (2019)
Geophysical Research Letters  

Plain English Summary

Although stream networks are represented as fixed blue lines on maps, the actual extent of flowing water dynamically adjusts as landscapes become wetter and drier. This is an old observation, but one without a satisfying physical explanation. Intuitively, flowing streams extend during wetter periods, as smaller parts of the landscape are able to supply enough water to support streamflow. But the supply of water is only part of the story, because some parts of the landscape may have greater capacity to move supplied water through the subsurface without streamflow, affecting where water ultimately emerges. In this study, we use observations from 17 mountainous landscapes to show that topography can be used to predict both the supply of water and the capacity to move that water through the subsurface. Consequently, topographic maps can tell us how much a stream network will extend as its surrounding landscape becomes wetter. This helps us predict how dynamic (or, conversely, stable) stream networks will be during rainstorms, droughts, and longer‐term climatic shifts.



Flowing stream networks extend and retract as their surrounding landscapes wet up and dry out, both seasonally and during rainstorms, with implications for aquatic ecosystems and greenhouse gas exchange. Some networks are much more dynamic than others, however, and the reasons for this difference are unknown. Here we show that the tendency of stream networks to extend and retract can be predicted from down‐valley changes in topographic attributes (slope, curvature, and contributing drainage area), without measuring subsurface hydrologic properties. Topography determines where water accumulates within valley networks, and we propose that it also modulates flow partitioning between the surface and subsurface. Measurements from seventeen mountain stream networks support this hypothesis, showing that un‐dissected valley heads have greater subsurface transport capacities than sharply incised valleys downstream. In catchments where broad valley heads rapidly transition to sharply incised valleys, subsurface transport capacity decreases abruptly, stabilizing stream length through wet and dry periods.


Prancevic, J.P.; Kirchner, J.W. (2019): Topographic controls on the extension and retraction of flowing streams. Geophysical Research Letters. DOI: 10.1029/2018GL081799