Temporally Variable Stream Width and Surface Area Distributions in a Headwater Catchment Academic Article uri icon


  • ©2019. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved. Headwater stream networks expand and contract in response to event-driven and seasonal catchment wetness conditions. This dynamic behavior drives variability in the width, length, and surface area of streams, important parameters for constraining a range of ecological and biogeochemical processes, such as atmospheric gas exchange. While the longitudinal expansion and contraction of streams has been studied for some time, variability in stream widths remains poorly understood. Recent studies have found that stream widths at average baseflow conditions follow a log-normal frequency distribution across diverse physiographies. To examine how the distribution of widths varies with flow conditions, we surveyed stream widths 12 times across a 48.4-ha research watershed, located in the Duke Forest in central North Carolina, USA. Here, we show that as runoff increased from the 37th to 99th percentiles of flow, flowing streams widened across the network (“lateral expansion”) and streamflow simultaneously extended upstream to reactivate dry channels (“longitudinal expansion”). In general, as runoff increased, the marginal increase in stream surface area was equally divided between longitudinal and lateral expansion. Even so, the median stream width widens on average with increasing runoff, suggesting that longitudinal and lateral expansion affect the distribution of stream width differently. We find that the form of the relationship between stream width and runoff is a power law, which can be used to refine models for surface area estimation.

altmetric score

  • 10.3

author list (cited authors)

  • Barefoot, E., Pavelsky, T. M., Allen, G. H., Zimmer, M. A., & McGlynn, B. L.

citation count

  • 11

publication date

  • August 2019