Three-dimensional mapping of geomorphic controls on flood-plain hydrology and connectivity from aerial photos

Geoffrey C. Poole, Jack A. Stanford, Christopher A. Frissell, Steven W. Running

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


The Nyack flood plain of the Middle Fork Flathead River, MT, USA is a 9-km anastomosed alluvial montane flood plain. Upstream from the flood plain, the river is unregulated and the catchment virtually pristine. A patchy mosaic of vegetation and channels exists on the flood-plain surface. The surface and subsurface geomorphic structures of the flood plain facilitate high hydrologic connectivity (water flux between the channel and flood plain) marked by complex seasonal patterns of flood-plain inundation, extensive penetration of channel water laterally into the alluvial aquifer, and springbrooks formed by ground water erupting onto the flood-plain surface. After delineating and classifying flood-plain "elements" (vegetation patches and channel reaches) on the flood plain, we analyzed field-based elevation survey data to identify expected relationships among flood-plain element type, surface scour frequency, and flood-plain elevation. Data analyses show that scour frequency was inversely proportional to the elevation of the flood plain above river stage, except when localized geomorphic controls such as natural levees prevent normal high flows from inundating and scouring relatively low flood-plain elements. Further, while different flood-plain element types occupy distinct elevation zones on the flood plain, the elevation of each zone above the river channel varies with localized channel entrenchment. We found that topographic variation among flood-plain elements is greater than the variation within elements, suggesting that coarse-scale flood-plain topography can be characterized by delineating flood-plain elements. Field data document strong associations between specific classes of flood-plain elements and preferential ground-water flow paths in the upper alluvial aquifer. Combined with preexisting ground penetrating RADAR (GPR) surveys, these data intimate a sinuous lattice of preferential ground-water flow paths (buried abandoned streambeds) in the upper alluvial aquifer at approximately the same elevation as the main channel's streambed. Using aerial photo interpretation and the identified relationships among element-types, elevation, and preferential ground-water flow paths, we developed a quantitative, three-dimensional characterization of surface and subsurface geomorphology across the entire flood plain to support a heuristic modeling effort investigating the influence of flood-plain geomorphology on spatio-temporal patterns of surface and ground-water flow and exchange under dynamic hydrologic regimes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)329-347
Number of pages19
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2002


  • Flathead River
  • Hydrologic modeling
  • Montana
  • Nyack flood plain
  • Patch and channel types
  • Preferential ground-water flow
  • Relative elevation
  • Remote sensing


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