Rivers through time, as seen in Landsat images

Thanks to the Landsat program and Google Earth Engine, it is possible now to explore how the surface of the Earth has been changing through the last thirty years or so. Besides the obvious issues of interest, like changes in vegetation, the spread of cities, and the melting of glaciers, it is also possible to look at how rivers change their courses through time. You have probably already seen the images of the migrating Ucayali River in Peru, for example here. This river is changing its course with an impressive speed; many – probably most – other rivers don’t show much obvious change during the same 30-year period. What determines the meander migration rate of rivers is an interesting question in fluvial geomorphology.

The data that underlies Google Earth Engine is not accessible to everybody, but the Landsat data is available to anyone who creates a free account with Earth Explorer. It is not that difficult (but fairly time consuming) to download a set of images and create animations like this:


This scene also comes from the Ucayali River (you can view it in Google Earth Engine over here) and it is a nice example of how both neck cutoffs and chute cutoffs form. First a neck cutoff takes place that affects the tight bend in the right side of the image; this is followed by a chute cutoff immediately downstream of the neck cutoff location, as the new course of the river happens to align well with a pre-existing chute channel. The third bend in the upper left corner shows some well-developed counter-point-bar deposits. There is one frame in the movie for each year from 1985 to 2013, with a few years missing (due to low quality of the data).

6 thoughts on “Rivers through time, as seen in Landsat images

  1. Very illustratuve animation! Can i use it for an article about flood damage in a local newspaper? please contact me by email if you have any questions.

    Best regards
    Christian Eide

  2. Hi Z,
    I’d like to use your riverschangingthroughtime illustration and would like to appropriately credit you. How do you wish to be credited? I’d like to include your name, position and school or other?
    Thanks for this wonderful visual. I have never seen anything as good. I appreciate all the time that it must have taken. Your dedication is most appreciated.

    • Jim, thanks for the comment. Feel free to use the image. If you want to put my affiliation, I work for Chevron.

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