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Scientists look to Mars to help clarify how river paths change over time

A new study led by Tulane University has recently investigated the reasons behind the shifting paths of meandering rivers over time and their susceptibility to the impacts of climate change. 

Although the researchers initially focused on the behavior of the Mississippi River, they expanded their scope to encompass other terrestrial rivers as well as ancient riverbeds on Mars.

Focus of the study

The focal point of the study was the concept of river sinuosity, denoting the degree of curvature in river paths. This sinuosity is subject to change over time, and is influenced by factors such as the river’s age and alterations in its environment. 

Climate change has a significant influence on these factors, including sediment deposition, water supply, and the presence of riverbank vegetation. The analysis revealed that river sinuosity is connected to variations in water flow volume, which is contingent on environmental aspects, such as the extent of precipitation.

The scientists examined historical records dating back as far as the fifth century and visual records dating back to 1939, encompassing maps of Earth’s rivers throughout different eras. 

Ancient Martian riverbeds 

The analysis specifically focused on 21 lowland meandering rivers. In the case of the ancient Martian riverbeds, data from remote sensing studies were employed to incorporate previously identified ancient river channels.

The pristine Martian riverbeds, untouched by human influence, provided an ideal setting for the experts to evaluate their hypotheses about the evolutionary patterns of river systems and the corresponding sinuosity dynamics, while also contributing to a better understanding of Mars’ hydroclimate during its period of surface water presence.

Following an in-depth analysis of the rivers, the researchers categorized them into two groups: variable-sinuosity and constant-sinuosity. 

What the researchers learned 

Rivers exhibiting variable sinuosity never reached a consistent equilibrium state, resulting in ongoing fluctuations in their sinuosity, whereas rivers with constant sinuosity did attain a stable state, leading to relatively uniform sinuosity averages. 

Among the 21 terrestrial rivers scrutinized, 13 – including the Mississippi River – displayed variable sinuosity, while the remaining eight exhibited constant sinuosity.

According to lead author Chenliang Wu, an expert in Sedimentology and Geomorphology at Tulane, this study serves as a fundamental framework for more advanced inquiries, such as the investigation into whether the environmental conditions on Mars were conducive to sustaining life.

Valuable insights 

Comprehending the factors influencing river sinuosity can offer scientists and engineers valuable insights into the management of rivers in the future. This knowledge will be essential for endeavors such as river restoration, prospective infrastructure undertakings, and flood control measures. 

Since half of the global population resides in river basins, all of whom potentially face the threat of future flooding stemming from intensified weather events, better understanding how climate change affects the paths of rivers is crucial for safeguarding and assisting communities situated along riverbanks in a world experiencing increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience

More about shifting river paths

Changing the path of a river, either intentionally through engineering or unintentionally due to natural events, can have significant environmental, social, and economic impacts. Here’s a brief overview:

Environmental impacts

Ecosystem disruption

River systems support a wide variety of life forms. Changing the river path can disrupt the habitats of aquatic plants and animals, impacting the food web and local biodiversity.

Sediment distribution

Rivers transport sediment from upstream to downstream. Altering the river’s path can change where sediment is deposited, which can affect floodplains, deltas, and even coastal regions.

Water quality

If the new path goes through areas with higher pollution or if the reason for the change is construction-based, it might lead to deteriorated water quality.

Social impacts


If a river path is changed intentionally, people living along the river might need to be relocated. This can result in loss of homes, livelihoods, and cultural heritage.

Water access

Rivers are often sources of drinking water and are used for irrigation. Changing their path can impact the availability and accessibility of water for local communities.

Recreational activities

Activities like fishing, boating, or even riverside tourism might get affected.

Economic impacts


Bridges, roads, or other infrastructure can be impacted if a river’s course changes. This could lead to expensive repairs or reconstructions.


As rivers provide water for irrigation, changes in their path can impact agricultural yields, leading to economic repercussions.


In areas where rivers are used for transportation, a change in course could make certain routes inaccessible or necessitate new infrastructure.

Natural causes

Erosion and deposition

Over time, rivers can change course naturally due to erosion of banks on one side and deposition of sediment on the other.

Natural disasters

Events like earthquakes, landslides, or large storms can redirect parts of a river suddenly.

Human interventions

River paths might be changed intentionally for reasons like flood control, navigation, urban development, or hydropower generation.

However, these interventions can sometimes have unintended negative consequences, especially if not properly planned and executed.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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