How Do You Get the Bend in the River?

Most of us live right near a waterway, but have we ever stopped to think about how our behaviour influences the natural landscape?

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Take a look at almost any major city in Canada and you’ll probably notice that’s it’s built on a river or a lake.  Waterways were, and still are, important for transporting goods and providing a source of food.  But how has our use of rivers impacted their development?

This is one of the many questions about ecosystem geography that Professor Marwan Hassan asks in his research.  Professor Hassan studies the factors that influence how the landscape looks – why a river flows a certain way or why the mountains are still mountains.

When it comes to rivers, it’s all about the physics of sediment movement and the animals, like fish, that might affect it.  But human intervention has shifted the natural ecology of rivers.  Most of the rivers in Canada are fragmented – that is artificial structures may be blocking the passage of migratory fish and substantially changing the habitat distribution within the river network.

“There are certain parts of the Mississippi where we will lose all of the soil in the next 100 or 200 years,” says Hassan.  Observations like these can help inform conservation and restoration efforts.  Mississippi conservation efforts since the 1930’s clearly aren’t functioning the way we had hoped.

Professor Hassan’s work on understanding the shifting landscape can help restore rivers to a level that balances ecological function and aesthetics.

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Marwan Hassan is a professor of geomorphology in the Department of Geography, The University of British Columbia, who has worked extensively throughout the world, within small and large basins alike, including major studies completed for the Yangtze, Yellow and Mississippi river basins.  His research interests cover broad aspects of the field from basic process-oriented field studies of sediment transport, channel stability and morphology, to physical experimentation of bedload transport processes, to in depth reviews of the challenges surrounding water in the Middle East.  He has pioneered work in particle tracing technologies, and more importantly linking insights to sediment transport theory, and was one of the first to document the significant effect of spawning salmonids on annual bedload sediment budgets, making clear connections between biological and physical processes.  He manages a long running field research station in the Coastal Mountains just east of Vancouver, British Columbia and he directs the brand new, state of the art Mountain Channel Hydraulic Experimental Laboratory at the University of British Columbia.