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River dunes in unsteady conditions

Unsworth, Christopher Adam


Christopher Adam Unsworth


Daniel R. Parsons


This thesis explores the nature of river dunes in unsteady conditions. River dune research has two main philosophical approaches that are necessitated by the nature of dunes; they are individually dynamic features emergent from the interaction between flow and sediment transport, whilst this dynamism is restricted by a mixture of instantaneous and historical flow and sediment boundary conditions.

This thesis has applied both philosophical approaches to the investigation of river dunes in unsteady conditions and highlights key areas where flow and sediment processes at the laboratory scale overlap that of the larger scale river, such as in the suspension of sediment, and importance of velocity profile shape on dune shape. Normalising the downstream velocity with shear velocity was repeatedly found to simplify and explain the fluid processes over dunes across a range of conditions and indicates that the dominant processes controlling dune shape and sediment mobility are hydraulically smooth, despite hydraulically rough grain sizes. The existence of a turbulent wave over dunes reduces the magnitude of flow velocity that reaches the bed and effectively changes the grain Reynolds number. This turbulent flow structure was extensively measured in this thesis, with detailed instantaneous flow velocity measurements, across a range of flow conditions over fixed bedforms with the use of Particle Imaging Velocimetry. This also revealed that the well-known equilibrium turbulent flow structure over dunes is dramatically altered when in transient flow-morphology conditions. It was found that the wake and stacked wake, changes location and intensity with flow depth and discharge, and that reattachment length is strongly related to U/u* as measured at the dune crest. This research provides descriptions of the causal mechanisms behind many bedform adaptions to flow unsteadiness, such as the formation of humpback dunes in high shear stress conditions.

A second set of laboratory experiments explored the mean scaling of dunes with a mobile bed in a recirculating flume. The mean velocity profile shape was adjusted to move the point of maximum downstream velocity toward the bed, whilst keeping depth and depth averaged velocity- two variables used in almost all bedform stability diagrams, the same. It was found that dune height scaled with bed shear stress in a parabola, whilst dune wavelength scaled linearly. This indicates that dune height is primarily controlled via flow separation and dune wavelength scales most well is shear velocity and grain size (i.e. sediment transport lengths).

Lastly, dunes were measured in the field during the falling leg of the monsoonal wet season floods on a section of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The river bed consisted of large dunes with superimposed bedforms. The geometry of the large dunes showed no relationship with the hydraulic conditions present; however the secondary dunes size responded to the variations in flow depth. All large dunes migrated at a constant rate, despite variation in height, and it was hypothesised that the superimposed bedforms provided any excess sediment for the host dune migration.

Large dune height was half that predicted from empirical equations using flow depth. Variations in suspended sediment did not match those predicted via the Rouse number, instead, plotting U/u*, across variations in discharge and depth showed a good relationship with suspended sediment concentration. This relationship between flow structure and suspended sediment, with the concurrent variation secondary dune size indicated that the large dunes were depth limited. This is despite the consistent presence of secondary dunes at the crest of the host bedform or strong free surface interaction and suggests that dune height in rivers with superimposed bedforms is controlled by the existence of superimposed bedforms.


Unsworth, C. A. (2015). River dunes in unsteady conditions. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Apr 25, 2016
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Geography
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, The University of Hull
Award Date Feb 1, 2015


Thesis (12.3 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2015 Unsworth, Christopher Adam. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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