Short lecture on rivers LO23978

From: Leo Minnigh (
Date: 02/15/00

Replying to LO23931

Dear LO'ers,

This contribution is hooked on "Organizational Learning & Knowledge
Management LO23931" of At de Lange. I changed the subject title, since the
river of our dialogue became so rich - the rich picture - that it is
inevitable that bifurcations occur. So much bifurcations that the original
main stream is hard to find, or even completely disappeared in the many

An idea that was already for a long time breading in my mind was to write
something on the morphology and dynamics of rivers, and is captured in
this dialogue flow by just one small paragraph:

>Here is the metaphoric example for the "advanced depletion" of tacit
>knowledge. I think Leo will appreciate it because it brings a new angle
>to his "let your thoughts meander to the sea of ideas".

A new angle and the erosion of the area of formal knowledge. Some
particles of this area are taken away as sediment.

Why has each river its own form? Why are there rivers that meander and
others not. What happens in a mountaneous environment, what happens in a
flood plane and why do some rivers form a delta close to the sea?

These are questions which are too complex to deal in depth and probably
are too far from the scope of this list. However, the metaphor of the
river appears at regular times here, so I will spend some words. These
words are ment to sketch a visual picture that may help in the
understanding of flows. Flows of thoughts, money, people, knowledge,
dialogues, creative activities, sensible and nonsensible particles, etc.
Fore those of us who try to understand the depths of the exposees of At de
Lange (entropy, entropy production, free energy and essentialities), the
river metaphor might be of help.

Somewhere, high in the mountains the rising atmospheric air becomes colder
and colder. And due to the decrease in temperature, the air is not able
anymore to carry the moist in it. Snow and rain will given away as spill
water. It falls on the mountains. The snow is stored as frozen water in
high altitude basins and the packed snow becomes glacier ice. For many
years this ice is waiting for its time to become water again. The glacier
is the temporary ware house in the water cycle.
If instead of snow, rain was falling on the mountains, the water cycle
seems to be continuous.
However, the water cycle has many temporary ware houses. As the air and
the glacier, also vegetation and soil act as ware houses. Only the spill
water as an overflow will feed the seemingly continuous cycle.

This overflow will then pass a period where concentration seems the main
principle. From huge areas all the spill water concentrates in small
streams and brooks, all with a destination. An unescapable destination: a
main stream, a river, the sea. It is the areal picture of MANY TO ONE, the
result of an attractor, in this case the attraction of gravitation.
Ofcourse, all kinds of other phenomena have there roles in this play:
erosion, evaporation, natural irrigation. However, I like to concentrate
on patterns and morphology. This morphology is fractal: number, length and
volume of the smaller brooks in relation to the number, lengths and
volumes of main streams, in respect to number, length and volume of a
And thus, velocity of water should also be in balance with these fractal
relationships. And thus, the surface area of water supply changes in a
fractal manner too from mountain to sea.

So far, the above picture seems fairly natural. However, the total
volume of water in such great system is not constant. Although the
morphology may suggest a certain total water volume, we all know that
sometimes there are dry river beds, and sometimes the supply of water is
so high that rivers themselves show overflow and spill.
How does the living river system cope with this kind of rhythm?

If a river is not feeded by so many small streams from the mountains, the
river could only survive from the rainfall from the much smaller surface
area downstream. The river has to change its morphology, it withdraws it
selve in its own bed with a much smaller stream and also the velocity
will decrease.

With the contrary, the overflow the story is somewhat more complicated,
but very important.
The changes of a river system coping with a too great supply of water
depend very much on the rhythm and amounts of overflow. It is important to
keep in mind that with the introduction of more water into the river
system than this system contains in balanced situation, more energy is
introduced. That means that the overload of water is kind of 'pushing' the
system. If this pushing force is slowly build up (like slowly increasing
the heat supply when boiling the frog), the whole system will change. That
means increasing the surface area and increasing the volume and increasing
its velocity. Thus erosion will increase and the river will progress also
somewhat backward (more backward into the mountains). These changes in
morphology are seldomly in pace with the increase in water supply. So the
river searches for other means.

Rivers must react also to seasonal effects. In spring time the winter snow
well melt and generates huge quantities of water. Also seasonal rainfall
may cause similar effects. This is what I had in mind when I was writing
on the rhythm of water supply. These temporal pushing forces cause strange
effects. For those who like to walk in the mountains, for those who live
in a semi arid climate, river beds may show a pattern resembling a braid,
the interaction of several meandering streams. This type of river is
therefore called a 'braided river'. In mountain areas such pattern is
usually seen on a smaller scale than more down stream where braided rivers
may occur over hundreds of kilometres. The river bed is very wide, but not
completely filled with water. Several branches of inter-meandering streams
and lots of small eye-shaped iles in the river bed could be observed.
These braided rivers give me always a joy of fascination. The show a great
biodiversity; it is a vivid scenery.
But there is something strange. I told you of the river system in balance:
MANY to ONE, the countless number of brooks and streams that finally their
destination in the main river. With the braided river some of the water
shows escape behavior. Some water tries to avoid a main stream and tries
to create an independant separated stream: bifurcation before our eyes. It
looks like ONE TO MANY. The over dosis of energy that was introduced by
the temporary increase of water, is manifested and coped by the creation
of many new currents. The pushing created spreading. Usually, attraction
will win again before all the water has reached the final sea. So most
water will find itself again and flows together in one main stream.
Apparently, the pushing force was only of temporal nature; attraction had
won again.

Before I continue with the rivers, I like to mention the analogies between
the braided river and all sorts of temporary overflows that may occur in
other areas. Overflow of information, money, traffic, employees, etc. Look
and think too of the patterns of dialogue on this very list. They show a
marvelous landscape of a braided river bed with all those inter-meandering
threads (I think that Rick, trying to map these threads will feel the best
what I mean). And each time a package of extra energy is introduced (for
instance the rich pictures of At de Lange), new branches will form, are
created. The are the unevitable result of this mechanism. It is the play
of quantity-limit essentiality.

In the mountains where the due to high geographic relief, the speed of
water is high too, water has other means of coping with high quatities of
energy supply. Usually ther are not too much places along the track of
brooks and streams to bifurcate in a braided system. In such case water
has found a less obvious bifurcation: the immergence of turbulence and
other rapids.
However, close to the sea where the relief is low and water velocity is
low too and where all kinds of irregularities in water supply have been
averaged, there seems no reason for the river anymore to do strange
things. The river water seems to run slowly in complete balance with
the available energy. All the water concentrated in one large stream.
Here are usually the right conditions for meandering. The length of the
river is pi times the shortest distance to the sea. Relief is usually so
low that a river could easily run along this shortest distance, but it
doesn't. Free energy must escape, should be spend to something: the
But sometimes there is still something extra available. Because sometimes
the relief is so low, that the attraction by gravity is hardly present.
But the water runs. Again the river may reach the edge of chaos and
bifurcations will occur. Yes, dear readers, the river will split again.
Against all our common sense, some water in the river will escape from the
main stream. We know this phenomenon as a delta. This delta has nothing to
do (or does it??) with the sign '/_\'. But we may dream of the '<' sign:

I hope that I have sketched a story that helps you in the understanding of
some of the abstract or philosophical contributions on this list. These
pictures of the various forms of rivers have helped me very much.

Some of you wil probably also see the difficult connections between form
and content. I focussed on forms and morphological features, but it is
clear that they could not be understood if we don't look to the dynamics
and contents too. The river lives a rhythmic life.

There is something else which I did not mentioned. I only will mention it
very briefly.
The water in the river is not the only 'thing' that is transported. And by
this transport also energy is transported. Some of this energy is also
used to transport sediment. In that case the water is the carrier, the
medium that transports something else: pebbles, grains, sand, clay and
silt. High-energy water could transport much larger grains than low-energy
water. Or in other words, fast running water contains much more volume and
much more diverse grains than slow running water. This slow running water
could only carry the tiniest fractions. So the bed of a braided river
(with a surplus of energy) is commonly filled with large pebbles, pebbles
which are too large to carry. But all the smaller grains are taken
further, downstream. Near the sea, where the water speed is low, no
pebbles and other coarse grains are found. These where already deposited
much earlier in the river, upstream. Thus we may also decipher the energy
regime of the river system by looking to the grain sizes of the sediment
in the riverbed. The river is a marvelous sieve, separating the total
sediment load in numerous fractions. ONE TO MANY. We may dream of an
expression like 'the chromatography of the river'.

I hope that I have concentrated several arms of the braided river of our
contributions into one main stream (there are still lots of arms left).
Maybe this will lead in your head to (re)new(ed) bifurcations.

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
        Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <>

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