GLObal Suspended Sediment (GLOSS): Drivers, trends and future trajectories

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Geography & Environmental Sci


This project addresses how environmental change affects the movement of sediment through rivers and into our oceans. Understanding the movement of suspended sediment is important because it is a vector for nutrients and pollutants, and because sediment also creates floodplains and nourishes deltas and beaches, affording resilience to coastal zones. To develop our understanding of sediment flows, we will quantify recent variations (1985-present) in sediment loads for every river on the planet with a width greater than 90 metres. We will also project how these river sediment loads will change into the future.

These goals have not previously been possible to achieve because direct measurements of sediment transport through rivers have only ever been made on very few (<10% globally) rivers. We are proposing to avoid this difficulty by using a 35+ years of archive of freely available satellite imagery. Specifically, we will use the cloud-based Google Earth Engine to automatically analyse each satellite image for its surface reflectance, which will enable us to estimate the concentration of sediment suspended near the surface of rivers. In conjunction with other methods that characterise the flow and the mixing of suspended sediment through the water column, these new estimates of surface Suspended Sediment Concentration (SSC) will be used to calculate the total movement of suspended sediment through rivers.

We then analyse our new database (which, with a five orders of magnitude gain in spatial resolution relative to the current state-of-the-art, will be unprecedented in its size and global coverage) of suspended sediment transport using novel Machine Learning techniques, within a Bayesian Network framework. This analysis will allow us to link our estimates of sediment transport to their environmental controls (such as climate, geology, damming, terrain), with the scale of the empirical analysis enabling a step-change to be obtained in our understanding of the factors driving sediment movement through the world's rivers. In turn, this will allow us to build a reliable model of sediment movement, which we will apply to provide a comprehensive set of future projections of sediment movement across Earth to the oceans. Such future projections are vital because the Earth's surface is undergoing a phase of unprecedented change (e.g., through climate change, damming, deforestation, urbanisation, etc) that will likely drive large transitions in sediment flux, with major and wide reaching potential impacts on coastal and delta systems and populations. Importantly, we will not just quantify the scale and trajectories of change, but we will also identify how the relative contributions of anthropogenic, climatic and land cover processes drive these shifts into the future. This will allow us to address fundamental science questions relating to the movement of sediment through Earth's rivers to our oceans, such as:

1. What is the total contemporary sediment flux from the continents to the oceans, and how does this total vary spatially and seasonally?
2. What is the relative influence of climate, land use and anthropogenic activities in governing suspended sediment flux and how have these roles changed?
3. How do physiographic characteristics (area, relief, connectivity, etc.) amplify or dampen sediment flux response to external (climate, land use, damming, etc) drivers of change and thus condition the overall response, evolution and trajectory of sediment flux in different parts of the world?
4. To what extent is the flux of sediment driven by extreme runoff generating events (e.g. Tropical Cyclones) versus more common, lower magnitude events? How will projected changes in storm frequency and magnitude affect the world's sediment fluxes in the future?
5. How will the global flux of sediment to the oceans change over the course of the 21st century under a range of plausible future environmental change scenarios?


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