Bedform migration in steep channels: from local avalanches to large scale changes.
Many studies have emphasized the strength of bedload transport fluctuations in steep streams, especially at low and intermediate transport conditions (relative to the threshold of incipient motion). The origins of these fluctuations, which appear on a wide range of time scales, are still not well understood. In this study, we present the data obtained from a 2D idealized laboratory experiment with the objective of simultaneously recording the channel bed evolution and bedload transport rate at a high temporal resolution. A 3-m long by 8-cm wide transparent flume filled with well-sorted natural gravel (d50=6.5 mm) was used. An efficient technique using accelerometers has been developed to record the arrival time of every particle at the outlet of the flume for long experimental durations (up to a few days). In addition, bed elevation was monitored using cameras filming from the side of the channel, allowing the observation of global aggradation/ degradation as well as bedform migration. The experimental parameters were the water discharge, the flume inclination (from 2° to 5°) and the constant feeding rate of sediments. Large-scale bed evolution showed successive aggradation and rapid degradation periods. Indeed, the measured global channel slope, i.e. mean slope over the flume length, fluctuated continuously within a range sometimes wider than 1° (experimental parameters were constant over the entire run). The analysis of these fluctuations provides evidence that steep channels behave like metastable systems, similarly to grain piles. The metastable effects increased for steeper channels and lower transport conditions. In this measurement campaign, we mainly observed upstream-migrating antidunes. For each run, various antidune heights and celerities were measured. On average, the mean antidune migration rate increased with decreasing channel slope and increasing sediment feeding rate. Relatively rare tall and fast-moving antidunes appeared more frequently at high flume angles and produced intense solid discharge pulses. Moreover, small avalanches occurred on the steep lee sides of antidunes. From these results, we infer a mechanism of steep channel evolution. The time- and space-averaged profile of the bed in the streamwise direction depends on the experimental parameters. Variations in the profile result mainly from bedform migration. The instantaneous global state of the bed (which can be characterized by the global channel slope) controls the growth of bedforms, which can be seen as local instabilities. When the global channel slope approaches its critical value, local instabilities of higher amplitude can develop and create intense bedload transport pulses, leading to a less steep, but more stable bed profile.