Over the past two decades there has been a growing interest in the geomorphological mosaic along large floodplain rivers where channel dynamics are seen to drive habitat-patch creation and turnover and to contribute to high biological diversity. This has required a new perspective on fluvial geomorphology that focuses on biological scales of space and time. This study examines the spatial pattern of surface fine sediment accumulations along a reach of a large gravel-bed river, the Tagliamento River in NE Italy; an area with a moist Mediterranean climate and seasonal flow regime. The study investigates changes in sediment characteristics during the summer low-flow period between April and September. Focussing on five areas representing a gradient from open, bar-braided to wooded island-braided morphologies, the paper demonstrates the importance of riparian vegetation and aeolian–fluvial interactions.
Significant contrasts in particle size distributions and organic content of freshly deposited sand and finer sediments were found between sampling areas, geomorphological settings, and sampling dates. In particular, wooded floodplain and established islands supported consistently finer sediment deposits than both open bar surfaces and the lee of pioneer islands, and in September significantly finer sediments were also found in deposits located in the lee of pioneer islands than on open bar surfaces. Overall, the September samples had a greater variability in particle size characteristics than those obtained from the same sites in April, with a general coarsening of the D5 (φ) (i.e., the coarse tail of the particle size distribution). Also in September, crusts of fine sediment (30 μm < D50 < 64 μm) had formed on the surface of some of the open bar and pioneer island deposits within the more open sampling areas along the study reach. These crusts possessed similar particle size characteristics to aeolian crusts found in more arid environments. They were significantly finer than April samples and September subcrust samples obtained from the same sites and had similar particle size characteristics to some samples taken from wooded floodplain, established island surfaces and the lee of pioneer islands that were not crusted.
Local climatological and river level data confirm significant wind and rainfall events during a period of consistently low river levels between the April and September sampling periods. These support deflation, deposition and rain wash of finer sediment during the summer, with windblown sediments being deposited on bar surfaces and in the lee of pioneer islands where wood and young trees provide foci for accelerated sedimentation and island growth as well as on marginal floodplains and established islands. We conclude that along braided rivers in moist settings but with a distinct dry season, aeolian reworking of sediment deposits may have a more important role in driving habitat dynamics than previously considered.