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Why Aren’t All Rivers Straight? The Answer Is Kind Of Mind-Blowing.

Isn’t science great?

Rivers, y'all. There's so much about them I didn't know.

1. Rivers only *seem* tame and lazy.

Mountain streams are corralled by the steep-walled valleys they carve. Their courses are literally set in stone. Out on the open plains, those stoney walls give way to soft soil, allowing rivers to shift their banks and set their own ever-changing courses to the sea. Courses that almost never run straight, at least not for long, because all it takes to turn a straight stretch of river into a bendy one is a little disturbance and a lot of time.


2. What makes a river bend?

Say, for example, that a muskrat burrows herself a den in one bank of a stream. Her tunnels make for a cozy home, but they also weaken the bank, which eventually begins to crumble and slump into the stream.

As more of the stream's flow is diverted into the deepening hole on one bank and away from the other side of the channel, the flow there weakens and slows. And because slow-moving water can't carry the sand-sized particles that fast-moving water can, the dirt drops to the bottom and builds up to make the water there even shallower and slower. And then it keeps accumulating until it becomes new land on the inside bank.

Meanwhile, the fast-moving water near the outside bank sweeps out of the curve with enough momentum to carry it across the channel and slam it into the other side, where it starts to carve another curve and then another and then another and then another.

3. Rivers can do math. Sort of.

Measurements of meandering streams all over the world reveal a strikingly regular pattern. The length of one S-shaped meander tends to be about six times the width of the channel. So little, tiny meandering streams tend to look just like miniature versions of their bigger relatives.

4. But it doesn't mean they're very smart about it.

As long as nothing gets in the way of a river's meandering, its curves will continue to grow curvier and curvier until they loop around and bumble into themselves. When that happens, the river's channel follows a straighter path downhill leaving behind a crescent-shaped remnant called an oxbow lake.

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