Floodplain

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A floodplain, or flood plain, is flat or nearly flat land adjacent to a stream or river that stretches from the banks of its channel to the base of the enclosing valley walls and experiences flooding during periods of high discharge.[1] It includes the floodway, which consists of the stream channel and adjacent areas that carry flood flows, and the flood fringe, which are areas covered by the flood, but which do not experience a strong current.

Contents

Physical geography

Flood plains are made by a meander eroding sideways as it travels downstream. When a river breaks its banks and floods, it leaves behind layers of rock and mud. These gradually build up to create the floor of the flood plain. Floodplains generally contain unconsolidated sediments, often extending below the bed of the stream. These are accumulations of sand, gravel, loam, silt, and/or clay, and are often important aquifers, the water drawn from them being pre-filtered compared to the water in the stream.

Geologically ancient floodplains are often represented in the landscape by fluvial terraces. These are old floodplains that remain relatively high above the present floodplain and indicate former courses of a stream.

Sections of the Missouri River floodplain taken by the United States Geological Survey show a great variety of material of varying coarseness, the stream bed having been scoured at one place and filled at another by currents and floods of varying swiftness, so that sometimes the deposits are of coarse gravel, sometimes of fine sand or of fine silt. It is probable that any section of such an alluvial plain would show deposits of a similar character.

The floodplain during its formation is marked by meandering or anastomotic streams, ox-bow lakes and bayous, marshes or stagnant pools, and is occasionally completely covered with water. When the drainage system has ceased to act or is entirely diverted for any reason, the floodplain may become a level area of great fertility, similar in appearance to the floor of an old lake. The floodplain differs, however, because it is not altogether flat. It has a gentle slope down-stream, and often, for a distance, from the side towards the center.

Ecology

Floodplains can support particularly rich ecosystems, both in quantity and diversity. They are a category of riparian zones or systems. A floodplain can contain 100 or even 1000 times as many species as a river. Wetting of the floodplain soil releases an immediate surge of nutrients: those left over from the last flood, and those that result from the rapid decomposition of organic matter that has accumulated since then. Microscopic organisms thrive and larger species enter a rapid breeding cycle. Opportunistic feeders (particularly birds) move in to take advantage. The production of nutrients peaks and falls away quickly; however the surge of new growth endures for some time. This makes floodplains particularly valuable for agriculture.

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