Compared to the whitewater streams that tumble down mountainsides, the meandering rivers
of the plains may seem tame and lazy. But mountain streams are corralled by the steep-walled
valleys they carve – their courses are literally set in stone. Out on the open plains, those
stony walls give way to soft soil, allowing rivers much more freedom to shift their banks
and set their own ever-changing courses to the sea: courses that almost never run straight.
At least not for long, because all it takes to turn a straight stretch of river into a
bendy one is a little disturbance and a lot of time – and in nature, there’s plenty
Say, for example, that a muskrat burrows herself a den in one bank of a stream. Her
tunnels make for a cozy home, but they also weaken the bank, which eventually begins to
crumble and slump into the stream.
Water rushes into the newly-formed hollow, sweeping away loose dirt and making the hollow
even hollower, which lets the water rush a little faster and sweep away a little more
dirt from the bank…and so on, and so on .
As more of the stream’s flow is diverted into the deepening hole on one bank and away
from the other side of the channel, the flow there weakens and slows. And since slow-moving
water can’t carry the sand-sized particles that fast-moving water can, that dirt drops
to the bottom and builds up to make the water there shallower and slower, and then keeps
accumulating until the edge of the stream becomes new land on the inside bank.
Meanwhile, the fast-moving water near the
outside bank sweeps out of the curve with enough momentum to carry it across the channel
and slam it into the other side, where it starts to carve another curve . And then another,
and then another, and then another. The wider the stream, the longer it takes the slingshotting
current to reach the other side, and the greater the downstream distance to the next curve.
In fact, measurements of meandering streams all over the world reveal a strikingly regular
pattern : the length of one S-shaped meander tends to be about six times the width of the
channel . So little tiny meandering streams tend to look just like miniature versions
of their bigger relatives.
As long as nothing gets in the way of a river’s meandering , its curves will continue to grow
curvier and curvier until they loop around and bumble into themselves. When that happens,
the river follows the straighter path downhill, leaving behind a crescent-shaped remnant called
an oxbow lake. Or a billabong. Or a lago en herradura. Or a bras mort …
We have lots of names for these lakes, since
they can occur pretty much anywhere liquid flows – which brings up an interesting question:
what do the Martians call them?