River Landscapes

While only being a tiny fraction of the Earth’s total space, rivers have been focal points in geography for centuries. They supply drinking water, carry people and goods, and pose themselves as obstacles to get across. Rivers are not just simple trickles of water flowing across the land, they're much more. So, what is the meaning of river landscapes? What are their characteristics and processes? Can we use the rivers in the UK as an example of river landscapes? Let's find out!

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Table of contents

    River landscapes meaning

    When we talk about river landscapes, sometimes called riverscapes, we mean the formations of the land in and around rivers as well as the features of the rivers themselves. Rivers and the land have a back-and-forth relationship, each one impacting the other in different ways. If you’ve ever stood on a riverbank or looked from a bridge and seen a river flow and meander in different directions, that’s all part of the river landscape.

    River landscapes and processes

    While every river is unique, there are some river landscapes and processes that you’ll find with every river in the world. Below we’ll examine some of these processes and features in more detail.


    Every river begins at a source, which typically is numerous sources of water feeding into the river. A spring at the top of a hill, bubbling water up from the ground which then begins to flow downhill could be the source of a river. It’s important to understand that rivers have to start somewhere uphill and end downhill so they can flow, otherwise they would just be a very long lake! A river doesn’t only get its water from the first source, however, and is fed from many other sources along its route with smaller streams flowing into the larger river. These smaller streams are known as tributaries. All the sources and streams that feed into the river form what is called a drainage basin or watershed.

    Drainage Basin: A drainage basin is an area of land where water collects and flows into a larger body of water. The water may come from precipitation such as rain, snowmelt, or groundwater below.

    River Landscapes Source of River Wey surrounded by trees StudySmarterFig. 1 - Source of the River Wey, a tributary of the Thames River in England

    Rivers engage in three important processes that change the landscape around them: erosion, transportation, and deposition. Let’s take a closer look at each of these three processes.


    When the power of the water chips away at the dirt, rocks, and sediment in and around the river, we call this process erosion. Vertical erosion is when the bottom of the river gets stripped away, and lateral erosion is when it occurs on the sides of the river. While the water itself causes erosion, rocks carried by the flow can also chip away at surfaces, as well as chemicals in the water dissolving certain materials. Erosion is a pivotal force in making rivers wider and deeper as well as shaping the landscapes around them.


    Different sizes of rocks and particles move along with the water as the river flows downstream, and this process is called transportation. Some particles are small enough to become dissolved into the water, while large rocks may only be able to gently slide and roll along the riverbed. Transportation is directly linked to erosion, as many of the objects that are eroded end up becoming transported in the river water.


    As a river loses the energy to keep breaking up surfaces and transporting material, it ends up dropping that material in what is called deposition. Naturally, the heaviest rocks and sediment end up getting deposited first as a river’s flow slows followed by the lighter substances.

    These three processes take place at different parts of the river, and next, we will look at the various courses of a river and river landscapes characteristics.

    River landscapes characteristics

    The main river landscapes characteristics can be divided into three sections of the river, each with distinctive features.

    Upper course

    The first and steepest part of a river is its upper course. The river and various streams flowing into it in this phase tend to have steep riverbanks resembling a valley. A lot of erosion takes place at this phase and dramatic features like waterfalls are also not uncommon. As more water collects the river gains volume and its velocity, or speed increases.

    Middle course

    In the next part of the river, the middle course finds the river deeper and with more energy than the upper course. Erosion and transportation take place in this phase with the river landscape being flatter. The middle course also creates river landscapes called meanders, which are bends in the river resembling a snake. The primary driving force behind the river landscapes in the middle course is lateral erosion, carving away at the sides of the river.

    Lower course

    Finally, the lower course is the widest and deepest point of a river, gradually slowing down before reaching the sea or a large body of water. The river landscape is very flat and forms floodplains, which during periods of flooding become filled with water and result in lots of deposition. At the very end of the river deltas often form, where the river splits into many smaller channels in a sort of fan shape, and sediments are deposited before finally reaching the sea.

    River deltas across the globe are important agricultural areas and population centres. The deposition of sediments provides crucial nutrients and the ample supply of water makes farming in these areas highly productive. In Egypt, over 95 percent of its population lives within a couple of kilometres of the Nile River and delta!

    River Landscapes Nile River from space at night StudySmarter Fig. 3 - View of the Nile River and Delta from space at night, notice the bright lights easily showing the shape of the delta

    Long profile of a river

    There are several perspectives to looking at a river, one of them is as if you’re looking from the side along the entire length of the river – this is called the long profile of a river. As we discussed earlier, rivers have to start higher than where they end otherwise they wouldn’t be able to flow, and thus most long profiles of a river appear as if they are gradually sloping downwards. Check out the diagram below to see what a long profile of a river looks like.

    Cross profile of a river

    Instead of looking from the side, as with the long profile, cross profiles are as if you are looking straight at the river, being able to see how deep it is, and the shapes of the riverbed and riverbanks. For example, if you were looking at the cross profile of a river during the upper course, it would look V-shaped, owing to the steep slopes of the riverbank and the narrow channel of the stream.

    River Landscapes in the UK

    River landscapes have impacted the UK throughout its history and continue to play a role in its development and life today. Most of the UK’s largest cities are built along rivers, providing sources of water and a means for transportation of goods- the River Thames is a classic example of this!

    Far from being just an asset, the possibility of damaging floods must be mitigated. Levees and other structures are built to prevent rivers from overflowing and damaging towns during periods where lots of rain can lead to flooding.

    River Landscapes - Key takeaways

    • River landscapes are the overall formations of a river and the land surrounding it.
    • Rivers engage in three processes that impact the land: erosion, transportation, and deposition.
    • A river can be divided into three sections: the upper, middle, and lower course, each with differing landscapes.
    • The long and cross profile of a river is a useful way to illustrate the difference between the three courses of the river and show their main characteristics.
    Frequently Asked Questions about River Landscapes

    What are river landscapes?

    The physical appearance of the river and the land around it are river landscapes. Rivers take many different shapes along their course and subsequently impact the land around them.

    What are the main features of a river landscape?

    • Source

    • Tributaries

    • Valleys

    • Waterfall

    • Delta

    • Meander

    • Floodplain

    What types of landscapes does the UK have?

    The UK has all the main types of river landscapes, including tributaries, valleys, waterfalls, deltas, and meanders. However, certain landscapes like rivers in glacial landscapes, are not present in the UK.

    What are river processes?

    There are three primary river processes:

    • Erosion: The removal of materials from the riverbed and riverbank by the force of the river.

    • Transportation: The carrying of materials suspended in the river water or being moved by it.

    • Deposition: The dropping of transported material along the riverbank, riverbed, or floodplains during flood periods.

    What is the long and cross profile of a river?

    The long and cross profile of a river are two ways to look at and understand a river and its landscape. A long profile is a diagram showing the river’s course from beginning to end as if you are viewing it from the side. A cross profile is looking at a river dead-on, revealing its depth, shape, and formations of the surrounding landscape.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following are features of a river landscape?

    Which of the following are river processes?

    Which of the following are a type of flood?

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