Confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda Rivers to produce the Ganges at Devprayag, India
The same confluence viewed from upstream at a different time; note the swirl of sediment from the Alaknanda.

In geography, a confluence (also: conflux) occurs where two or more flowing bodies of water join together to form a single channel.[1] A confluence can occur in several configurations: at the point where a tributary joins a larger river (main stem); or where two streams meet to become the source of a river of a new name (such as the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers at Pittsburgh, forming the Ohio); or where two separated channels of a river (forming a river island) rejoin at the downstream end.

Scientific study of confluences

Confluences are studied in a variety of sciences. Hydrology studies the characteristic flow patterns of confluences and how they give rise to patterns of erosion, bars, and scour pools.[2] The water flows and their consequences are often studied with mathematical models.[3] Confluences are relevant to the distribution of living organisms (i.e., ecology) as well; "the general pattern [downstream of confluences] of increasing stream flow and decreasing slopes drives a corresponding shift in habitat characteristics."[4]

Another science relevant to the study of confluences is chemistry, because sometimes the mixing of the waters of two streams triggers a chemical reaction, particularly in a polluted stream. The United States Geological Survey gives an example: "chemical changes occur when a stream contaminated with acid mine drainage combines with a stream with near-neutral pH water; these reactions happen very rapidly and influence the subsequent transport of metals downstream of the mixing zone."[5]

A natural phenomenon at confluences that is obvious even to casual observers is a difference in color between the two streams; see images in this article for several examples. According to Lynch, "the color of each river is determined by many things: type and amount of vegetation in the watershed, geological properties, dissolved chemicals, sediments and biologic content – usually algae." Lynch also notes that color differences can persist for miles downstream before they finally blend completely.[6]

River confluence flow zones

Hydrodynamic features of a river/flume confluence can be separated into six identifiable distinct zones, also called confluence flow zones.

Hydrodynamic behaviour of flow in a confluence can be divided into six distinct features[7] which are commonly called confluence flow zones (CFZ). These include

  1. Stagnation zone
  2. Flow deflection zone
  3. Flow separation zone / recirculation zone
  4. Maximum velocity zone
  5. Flow recovery zone
  6. Shear layers
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