Mountain streams

Streams of the Montane Humid Tropics

Tropical montane streams produce a disproportionately large amount of the sediment and carbon that reaches coastal regions and have often been considered to be distinct fluvial systems. They typically drain orogenic terrains that have not been recently glaciated, but have undergone climatic changes throughout the Pleistocene and currently receive 2000–3000 mm or more of precipitation each year. Steep gradient reaches with numerous boulders, rapids, and waterfalls that alternate with lower gradient reaches flowing over weathered rock or a thin veneer of coarse alluvium characterize these streams. Although their morphology and hydrology have distinctive characteristics, they do not appear to have diagnostic landforms that can be solely attributed to their low-latitude locations. While they are relatively understudied, an emerging view is that their distinctiveness results from a combination of high rates of chemical and physical weathering and a high frequency of significant geomorphic events rather than the absolute magnitudes of individual floods or other geomorphic processes. Their bedrock reaches and abundance of large and relatively immobile boulders combined with their ability to transport finer-grained sediment also suggest that the restorative processes in these systems may be less responsive than in other fluvial systems.

Lithological and fluvial controls on the geomorphology of tropical montane stream channels in Puerto Rico

Pike, Andrew S.; Scatena, F.N.; Wohl, Ellen E. 2010. Lithological and fluvial controls on the geomorphology of tropical montane stream channels in Puerto Rico. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. DOI: 10.1002/esp.1978.

An extensive survey and topographic analysis of fi ve watersheds draining the Luquillo Mountains in north-eastern Puerto Rico was conducted to decouple the relative infl uences of lithologic and hydraulic forces in shaping the morphology of tropical montane stream channels. The Luquillo Mountains are a steep landscape composed of volcaniclastic and igneous rocks that exert a localized lithologic infl uence on the stream channels. However, the stream channels also experience strong hydraulic forcing due to high unit discharge in the humid rainforest environment. GIS-based topographic analysis was used to examine channel profi les, and survey data were used to analyze downstream changes in channel geometry, grain sizes, stream power, and shear stresses. Results indicate that the longitudinal profi les are generally well graded but have concavities that refl ect the infl uence of multiple rock types and colluvial-alluvial transitions. Non-fl uvial processes, such as landslides, deliver coarse boulder-sized sediment to the channels and may locally determine channel gradient and geometry. Median grain size is strongly related to drainage area and slope, and coarsens in the headwaters before fi ning in the downstream reaches; a pattern associated with a mid-basin transition between colluvial and fluvial processes. Downstream hydraulic geometry relationships between discharge, width and velocity (although not depth) are well developed for all watersheds. Stream power displays a mid-basin maximum in all basins, although the ratio of stream power to coarse grain size (indicative of hydraulic forcing) increases downstream. Excess dimensionless shear stress at bankfull fl ow wavers around the threshold for sediment mobility of the median grain size, and does not vary systematically with bankfull discharge; a common characteristic in self-forming ‘threshold’ alluvial channels. The results suggest that although there is apparent bedrock and lithologic control on local reach-scale channel morphology, strong fluvial forces acting over time have been suffi cient to override boundary resistance and give rise to systematic basin-scale patterns.

Riparian indicators of flow frequency in a tropical montane stream network

Pike, A. S., and Scatena, F. N., 2010, Riparian indicators of flow frequency in a tropical montane stream
network: Journal of Hydrology, v. 382, p. 72–87, doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.12.019.

Many field indicators have been used to approximate the magnitude and frequency of flows in a variety of streams and rivers, yet due to a scarcity of long-term flow records in tropical mountain streams, little to no work has been done to establish such relationships between field features and the flow regime in these environments. Furthermore, the transition between the active channel of a river and the adjacent flood zone (i.e. bankfull) is an important geomorphologic and ecological boundary, but is rarely identifiable in steep mountain channels that lack alluvial flood plains. This study (a) quantifies relationships between field indicators and flow frequency in alluvial and steepland channels in a tropical mountain stream network and (b) identifies a reference active channel boundary in these channels, based on statistically defined combinations of riparian features, that corresponds to the same flow frequency of the bankfull stage and the effective discharge in adjacent alluvial channels. The relative elevation of transitions in riparian vegetation, soil, and substrate characteristics were first surveyed at nine stream gages in and around the Luquillo Experimental Forest in Northeastern Puerto Rico. The corresponding discharge, flow frequency, and recurrence intervals associated with these features was then determined from longterm 15-min discharge records and a partial duration series analysis. Survey data indicate that mosses and short grasses dominate at a stage often inundated by sub-effective flows. Herbaceous vegetation is associated with intermediate discharges that correspond to the threshold for sediment mobilization. Near-channel woody shrubs and trees establish at elevations along the channel margin inundated by a less frequent discharge that is coincident with the effective discharge of bed load sediment transport. Our data demonstrate that in alluvial channels in the study, both the bankfull stage (as marked by a flood plain) and the channel-forming (effective) discharge are associated with the presence of fine-grained substrate and soil, and tall, mature woody vegetation. In montane reaches that lack a flood plain, a boundary that is characterized by the incipient presence of soil, woody shrubs, and trees corresponds to the same flow frequency as the bankfull discharge of nearby alluvial channels. The reference discharge based on these riparian features in steepland sites has an average exceedance probability between 0.09% and 0.30%, and a recurrence interval between 40 and 90 days. We conclude that flows with similar frequencies influence the establishment of riparian vegetation, soil development, and substrate characteristics along channel margins in similar ways. Thus, these riparian features can be used as an indicator of hydrogeomorphic site conditions to identify active channel boundaries that occur at a constant flow frequency throughout the study stream network.
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