Integrating network topology metrics into studies of catchment-level effects on river characteristics

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The spatial arrangement of the river network is a fundamental characteristic of the catchment, acting as a conduit between catchment-level effects and reach morphology and ecology. Yet river network structure is often simplified to reflect an upstream-to-downstream gradient of river characteristics, commonly represented by stream order. The aim of this study is to quantify network topological structure using two network density metrics-one that represents network density over distance and the other over elevation-that can easily be extracted from digital elevation models and so may be applied to any catchment across the globe. These metrics should better account for the multi-dimensional nature of the catchment than stream order and be functionally applicable across geomorphological, hydrological and ecological attributes of the catchment. The functional utility of the metrics is assessed by appropriating monitoring data collected for regulatory compliance to explore patterns of river characteristics in relation to network topology. This method is applied to four comparatively low-energy, anthropogenically modified catchments in the UK using river characteristics derived from England's River Habitat Survey database. The patterns in river characteristics explained by network density metrics are compared to stream order as a standard measure of topology. The results indicate that the network density metrics offer a richer and functionally more relevant description of network topology than stream order, highlighting differences in the density and spatial arrangement of each catchment's internal network structure. Correlations between the network density metrics and river characteristics show that habitat quality score consistently increases with network density in all catchments as hypothesized. For other measures of river character-modification score, flow-type speed and sediment size-there are varying responses in different catchments to the two network density metrics. There are few significant correlations between stream order and the river characteristics, highlighting the limitations of stream order in accounting for network topology. Overall, the results suggest that network density metrics are more powerful measures which conceptually and functionally provide an improved method of accounting for the impacts of network topology on the fluvial system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2305-2319
Number of pages15
Issue number5
Early online date14 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2019


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