Collaborative Research: Unlocking the Seismic Signature of Rivers

Lead PI: Dr. Colin P. Stark

Unit Affiliation: Marine and Polar Geophysics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

July 2012 - June 2014
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: Gravel and cobble transport by rivers governs channel change, and is therefore of great importance to geomorphologists and river engineers. The most commonly used approaches to estimating bedload transport rates are empirically calibrated relationships based on flume experiments. However, it is difficult to assess how effectively such relationships predict transport rates during extreme events in large rivers because quantitative measures of bedload transport are labor intensive and, at high flows, often dangerous to obtain. For logistical reasons, most bedload studies have been carried out in small mountain streams. Particle impacts on the river bed transfer momentum, which in turn generates elastic (seismic) waves. Therefore, seismology (the study of elastic waves in the Earth) can potentially constrain bedload transport rates in rivers. Taking advantage of a well-instrumented catchment with independent constraints on when and at what rate sediment moves in the channel, we will deploy an array of seismometers to test theoretical predictions for the generation of seismic waves from bedload sediment impacts with the bed during transport.

Understanding more clearly when and at what rate coarse sediment moves in river channels is essential for planning infrastructure in and adjacent to rivers (e.g., bridges, dams, roads). Approaches to predicting coarse sediment transport are typically developed in controlled settings and can be inaccurate in large floods, when it is most critical to be able to predict sediment movement. Using a novel application of an existing science (seismology), we are developing an approach to measuring bedload transport in large rivers without requiring the deployment of any instrumentation in the river. This work has the potential to greatly improve our capacity to cheaply, safely, and efficiently monitor sediment movement in rivers while simultaneously advancing understanding of the processes influencing bedload transport rates in rivers. Additionally, this project will have an outreach component in which an undergraduate geology class will conduct a sediment transport monitoring exercise using the approach developed here.

OUTCOMES: An undergraduate geology class will conduct a sediment transport monitoring exercise using the approach developed here.


National Science Foundation (NSF)





L Zhang, G Parker, C P Stark, T Inoue, E Viparelli, X Fu, N Izumi. "Macroroughness model of bedrock alluvial river morphodynamics.," Earth Surface Dynamics Discussions, v.2, 2014, p. 297. doi:10.5194/esurfd22972014

D L Roth, N J Finnegan, E E Brodsky, K L Cook, C P Stark, H W Wang. "Migration of a coarse fluvial sediment pulse detected by hysteresis in bedload generated seismic waves.," Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v.404, 2014, p. 144. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2014.07.019


geomorphology seismology geology and tectonics rivers sediment bedload transport seismology