River channel conveyance capacity adjusts to modes of climate variability

River networks are typically treated as conduits of fixed discharge conveyance capacity in flood models and engineering design, despite knowledge that alluvial channel networks adjust their geometry, conveyance, planform, extent and drainage density over time in response to shifts in the magnitude and frequency of streamflows and sediment supply. Consistent relationships between modes of climate variability conducive to wetter-/drier-than-average conditions and changes in channel conveyance have never been established, hindering geomorphological prediction over interannual to multidecadal timescales. This paper explores the relationship between river channel conveyance/geometry and three modes of climate variability (the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, and Arctic Oscillation) using two-, five- and ten-year medians of channel measurements, streamflow, precipitation and climate indices over seven decades in 67 United States rivers. We find that in two thirds of these rivers, channel capacity undergoes coherent phases of expansion/contraction in response to shifts in catchment precipitation and streamflow, driven by climate modes with different periodicities. Understanding the sensitivity of channel conveyance to climate modes would enable better river management, engineering design, and flood predictability over interannual to multidecadal timescales.



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