Post-European settlement response gradients of river sensitivity and recovery across the upper Hunter catchment, Australia

Kirstie Fryirs*, Alexandra Spink, Gary Brierley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


Most analyses of river adjustment have focused on parts of catchments where metamorphosis has occurred. This provides a non-representative view of river responses to human-disturbance. Although many rivers have been subjected to systematic land-use change and disturbance, significant variability is evident in the form, extent and consequences of adjustment. This study documents the catchment-wide distribution of river sensitivity and adjustment in the upper Hunter catchment, New South Wales, Australia in the period since European settlement. The spatial distribution and timing of lateral, vertical and wholesale river adjustments are used to assess river sensitivity to change. The type and pattern of rivers, influenced largely by valley setting, have induced a fragmented pattern of river adjustment in the upper Hunter catchment. Adjustments have been largely non-uniform and localized, reflecting the predominance of bedrock-controlled rivers which have limited capacity to adjust and are resilient to change. Less than 20% of river courses have experienced metamorphosis. Phases of reach-scale geomorphic adjustment to human disturbance are characterized as a gradient of primary, secondary and tertiary responses. In general terms, primary responses such as cutoffs or straightening were followed by secondary responses such as channel expansion. These secondary responses occurred between 50-70 years after initial disturbance. A subsequent tertiary phase of river recovery, denoted as a transition from predominantly erosional to predominantly depositional geomorphic processes such as channel contraction, occurred around 70-120 years after initial disturbance. Such responses are ongoing across much of the upper Hunter catchment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)897-918
Number of pages22
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2009

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