Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Stream gradient is the ratio of drop in a stream per unit distance, usually expressed as feet per mile or meters per kilometer. A high gradient indicates a steep slope and rapid flow of water (ie. more ability to erode); whereas a low gradient indicates a more nearly level stream bed and sluggishly moving water, that may be able to carry only small amounts of very fine sediments. High gradient streams tend to have steep, narrow V-shaped valleys, and are referred to as young streams. Low gradient streams have wider and less rugged valleys, with a tendency for the stream to meander. These are older streams, in geological time.
A stream that flows upon a uniformly erodable substrate will tend to have a steep gradient near its source, and a low gradient nearing zero as it reaches its base level. Of course a uniform substrate would be rare in nature; hard layers of rock along the way may establish a temporary base level, followed by a high gradient, or even a waterfall, as softer materials are encountered below the hard layer. Human dams, glaciation, changes in sea level and many other factors can also change the "normal" gradient pattern.
On topographic maps, stream gradient can be easily approximated if the scale of the map and the contour intervals are known. Contour lines form a V-shape on the map, pointed upstream. By counting the number of lines that cross a stream bed within a measured distance, and converting this to the actual measurements of the land surface, will determine the actual gradient. For example, if one measures a scale mile along the stream length, and counts 3 contour lines crossed on a map with ten-foot contours, the gradient is approximately 30 feet per mile, a fairly steep gradient.
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