, Volume 176, Issue 1, pp 125–149 | Cite as

The particle size characteristics of fluvial suspended sediment: an overview

  • D. E. Walling
  • P. W. Moorehead
Sediment dynamics, transport and deposition, and distributions


The particle size characteristics of suspended sediment are of fundamental importance in understanding its role in a variety of environmental processes. Existing knowledge concerning the spatial and temporal variability of the grain size composition of suspended sediment is, however, relatively limited. At the global scale, major contrasts may exist between individual rivers in the calibre of their suspended load and this may be related to a number of controls including climate, catchment geology and basin scale. Any attempt to understand the precise relationship between the grain size characteristics of suspended sediment and those of its source material must also take account of the selectivity of erosion and delivery processes. A local case study undertaken by the authors in the 1500 km2 basin of the River Exe in Devon, UK is used to illustrate the considerable spatial variability that may occur within a relatively small area and the complexity of the associated controls.

Available evidence concerning the temporal variability of the grain size characteristics of suspended sediment emphasises the diverse patterns of behaviour that may exist and the complexity of the controls involved. In some rivers the sediment may become coarser as flow increases, in others it may become finer, whilst in others it may exhibit a relatively constant grain size composition. Data from the local case study in the Exe basin are again used to highlight the considerable diversity in response to changing discharge that may occur within a relatively small area.

Any attempt to understand the dynamics of sediment movement through a river system must also take account of the potential contrast between the ultimate and effective particle size distribution of suspended sediment in response to aggregation. Results from the Exe basin study indicate that even in rivers with relatively low solute concentrations, almost an order of magnitude difference may exist between the median particle size associated with the ultimate and effective grain size distributions.

Key words

suspended sediment particle size ultimate and effective particle size selective erosion and delivery spatial and temporal variation 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • D. E. Walling
    • 1
  • P. W. Moorehead
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

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