River sensitivity: a lost foundation concept in fluvial geomorphology

Kirstie A. Fryirs*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    85 Citations (Scopus)


    In the twenty-first century, fluvial geomorphologists are ideally placed to use their science in an applied manner, and provide guidance on environmental issues of concern. Understanding the impact of floods and droughts, land use and climate change, water use, etc. on river forms, processes and evolution requires that we understand interactions between water, sediment and vegetation, and how climate and anthropogenic impacts shape those interactions. More frequently, fluvial geomorphologists are asked to provide answers to a range of river issues, make forecasts about how systems might adjust in the future, and work with managers to implement strategies on-the-ground. To some, the field of fluvial geomorphology is underprepared for this task as several principles of landscape form, process and evolution are yet to be fully explored. Others however, see that geomorphologists have a suite of principles and tools at their disposal, and sufficient understanding to make forecasts about future river adjustments with some level of confidence. One concept that has been lost in recent years, but should lie at the heart of such analyses is that of river sensitivity. In this paper I draw on foundation literature to review the concept of river sensitivity. I provide examples that demonstrate how this concept could be reshaped and used for analyses at landform, reach and catchment scales. At the landform scale, morphological sensitivity is a function of textural and geometric sensitivity. At the reach scale, analyses consider inherent behavioural and change sensitivity. At the catchment scale river response and recovery are a function of locational, transmission and filter sensitivity. I then discuss how some temporal concepts can be used to consider how sensitivity in itself adjusts over time. Finally, I discuss future challenges for analysis of river sensitivity and consider how it could be used to improve geomorphological forecasting for use in river management.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)55-70
    Number of pages16
    JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017


    • threshold
    • recovery
    • sediment connectivity
    • resilience
    • complex response


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