• A flood plain (or floodplain) is a generally flat area of land next to a river or stream. It stretches from the banks of the river to the outer edges of the valley.
    A flood plain consists of two parts. The first is the main channel of the river itself, called the floodway. Floodways can sometimes be seasonal, meaning the channel is dry for part of the year. The floodway of the Todd River in Australia’s Northern Territory, for instance, is an ephemeral stream, meaning its channel can be dry for months at a time.
    Beyond the floodway is the flood fringe. The flood fringe extends from the outer banks of the floodway to the bluff lines of a river valley. Bluff lines, also called valley walls, mark the area where the valley floor begins to rise into bluffs. The flood fringe of the seasonal Todd River extends the flood plain to 445 square kilometers (170 square miles). 
    Some flood plains are extraordinarily wide. The Barotse flood plain of the Zambezi River, for example, is a vast wetland stretching thousands of kilometers through Angola, Zambia, and Botswana. The Barotse flood plain includes the sandy Kalahari basin, which is waterlogged during the rainy season and an extension of the nearby Kalahari Desert during the dry season.
    Some rivers have very narrow flood plains. In fact, some rivers, or parts of rivers, seem to have no flood plain at all. These rivers usually have a steep stream gradient—a very deep, fast-moving channel. Ngonye Falls, Zambia, marks a remote stretch of the Zambezi River where the flood plain is extremely narrow. As the Zambezi leaves the wide flood plain of the sandy Kalahari, it enters a narrow basalt channel as fast-moving whitewater rapids.
    Geology of a Flood Plain
    There are two major processes involved in the natural development of flood plains: erosion and aggradation. The erosion of a flood plain describes the process in which earth is worn away by the movement of a floodway. Aggradation (or alluviation) of a flood plain describes the process in which earthen material increases as the floodway deposits sediment.
    A river erodes a flood plain as it meanders, or curves from side to side. The massive lowland flood plain of the Amazon River, for instance, is carved with hundreds of oxbow lakes that document the meandering river and its tributaries over time. Oxbow lakes are formed when a meander, or bend, in the river is cut off from the river’s mainstem. Features such as oxbow lakes and seasonal wetlands are often a part of flood plains created through erosion and deposition.
    A meandering stream can contribute to a flood plain’s aggradation, or build-up in land elevation, as well as its erosion. A typical aggradation environment is a wide, shallow, braided river. Braided rivers often include river deltas, where the main floodway is separated into discrete channels and tiny islands. The process of subsidence, in which the elevation of a delta may sink due to sea level rise or human activity, often offsets aggradation in the flood plains in these areas. The huge aggradation of sediment around the Nile delta, for instance, is subsiding due to the rising level of the Mediterranean Sea.
    The alluvium, or sediment, of a flood plain varies. Its coarseness and composition depend on the surrounding landscape and the velocity of the currents that created the flood plain. Some flood plains are mostly fine-grained silt, while others are sandy. 
    The deposit of alluvium created as a river or stream breaks, or breaches, its bank is called a crevasse splay. The formation of a crevasse splay is very similar to the formation of an alluvial fan. The thickest layer of sediment is nearest the breach, while the thinnest and youngest sediments are fanned out.
    The layered sediments of many flood plains can create important aquifers. Clay, sand, and gravel filter water as it seeps downward. Water purification systems often take advantage of this natural phenomenon in a process called bank filtration. In bank filtration, water is deliberately filtered through the banks or flood plain of a river or lake. Nearby wells then collect the filtered water, which is then ready for more intense purification processes.
    Fluvial Terraces
    The sedimentary patterns of flood plains often provide scientists with evidence of past geologic activity. Thick layers of sand may indicate flash flooding, for instance, while thin, evenly spaced layers of silt may indicate more moderate and predictable flood patterns.
    One of the most important geologic features of a flood plain is its fluvial terraces. Fluvial terraces are step-shaped areas of land that flank the banks of a river or stream. Fluvial terraces mark the older, higher-elevation paths of the stream, before erosion and aggredation created the current mainstem of the stream or river. Fluvial terraces can mark the bluff lines—outer edges—of a flood plain.
    There are two major types of fluvial terraces: fill terraces and cut terraces. Fill terraces are formed as a valley or gorge is filled with alluvium. Alluvium can aggregate as a river meanders and overflows its banks, or it can be deposited by a glacier.
    While fill terraces are associated with aggredation, cut terraces are associated with erosion. Cut terraces are often formed below fill terraces, as water erodes sediment. 
    Older flood plains and river valleys can have many fluvial terraces. The Rhine Valley of Central Europe, for instance, has dozens of fluvial terraces created by the meandering Rhine as well as intense glaciation. Fluvial terraces in the Rhine allow geologists to examine more than 100,000 years of Europe’s past.
    Living on the Plain
    Flood plains have dazzling arrays of biodiversity. These seasonal riparian wetlands boast greater biodiversity than the rivers themselves. 
    The flood plains of Congo River tributaries, for instance, boast one of the most unusual fish on the planet: the West African lungfish. The lungfish is adapted to the two seasons in the Congo flood plain. It uses its gills during the rainy season, and its primitive lung during the dry season. 
    The Murray-Darling flood plain in Southeast Australia has remained remarkably unchanged for thousands of years. This flood plain is home to endemic species such as the hairy-nosed wombat, the wedge-tailed eagle, and several types of orchid.
    Tugay forests are unusual ecosystems that stretch along the flood plains of Central Asia, including western China, the Stans, and Azerbaijan. Tugay forests are sometimes called riparian forests due to their proximity to winding rivers. Tugay forests often serve as green migration corridors through arid or semi-arid environments. Vegetation in tugay forests, such as willow, poplar, and tamarisk, is largely dependent on the water supplied by the flood plain’s rivers and aquifers—not precipitation.
    People and Flood Plains
    Floods are usually seasonal and can be predicted months ahead of time. This predictability can make flood plains ideal locations to develop urban areas. Rivers provide both a natural transportation network and source of water for irrigation and industry. The relatively level land can be developed either as agricultural fields or sites for habitation or business. 
    The three most ancient civilizations on Earth all developed on fertile flood plains. The flood plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what are today Syria and Iraq, are known as Mesopotamia, “the land between the rivers.” Ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia include Sumeria, Akkadia, Assyria, and Babylonia. The flood plains of the Indus River, in what is today Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, gave rise to the Indus River Civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization. Finally, ancient Egyptian culture developed around the fertile flood plains of the Nile.
    Flood plains are usually very fertile agricultural areas. Floods carry nutrient-rich silt and sediment, and distribute it across a wide area. Flood plains are flat and often have relatively few boulders or other large obstacles that may prevent farming
    The rich flood plains of the Pampas, for example, are nicknamed the “Breadbasket of Argentina.” These lowlands are susceptible to floods, but are also home to some of South America’s most lucrative grain farms and cattle ranches.
    A flood plain’s flat terrain and slow-flowing rivers can provide excellent transportation corridors. Roads, bridges, railways, and even airports can be constructed on the even surface. Ships and barges can often haul cargo faster and more efficiently than roadways.
    The flood plains of the mighty Mississippi-Missouri river system in the central United States, for example, have served as vital transportation corridors for centuries. Native Americans deftly navigated the flood plains, making trade between the East Coast and West Coast of North America possible. During the 19th century, cities on Mississippi flood plains—St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana—became crucial centers of culture and commerce.

    Flood plains are natural flooding outlets for rivers. People, agriculture, and businesses on flood plains are always at some risk. 
    The most devastating floods of the 20th century occurred on the flood plains of the Yellow River in China, for example. The 1931 floods were some of the worst natural disasters ever recorded. The 1931 Yellow River floods followed years of drought that left the topsoil on flood plains brittle and eroded. Heavy rains swelled the river and forced it to break its banks, drowning wide swaths of land as the flood plain was unable to efficiently absorb the river’s excess water or dissipate its energy.
    Managing development of flood plains is a critical responsibility for regional and urban planners. The benefits of flood plains, including prime agricultural land and desirable housing locations, must be balanced with the personal and economic threats posed by floods. 
    Flood Meadows and Water Meadows
    Many flood-plain settlements maintain flood meadows and water meadows to reduce the impact of seasonal flooding. Flood meadows are natural areas of grassland immediately adjacent to a floodway. Flood meadows are often used as pastures for livestock when they are not saturated with water.
    Water meadows are also grasslands adjacent to floodways. Unlike flood meadows, water meadows are created and maintained by people. Water meadows are continuously irrigated through channels from the river. Water meadows were common features of the agricultural landscape in Western Europe throughout the 19th century. The nutrient-rich, silty soils of water meadows supported rich pastures used for livestock, as well as growing hay and other fodder.
    Urban Planning
    Cities built on flood plains, such as St. Louis or New Orleans, must incorporate flood-control infrastructure into their organization and architecture. Evacuation procedures, emergency shelters, and building codes must be in place. Levees or other barriers must be a part of the city design. Urban planners try to keep areas near the floodway, called a Special Flood Hazard Area, as free from development as possible.
    Sometimes, residents on flood plains must relocate entirely. The small town of English, Indiana, for instance, was established on the flood plain of the Blue River, a tributary of the Ohio. Damage caused by frequent floods encouraged the town’s residents and businesses to relocate the town center to elevated agricultural land several kilometers away. About 75% of English was torn down or relocated in 1990.
    Floodways and Flood Plain Restoration
    In many flood plains, a mass relocation is impossible for logistical and economic reasons. In such cases, engineers can divert the path the floodway—the river—itself. Artificial floodways are a sort of man-made river channel.
    The Red River floodway, for example, can divert the path of the Red River around the urban area of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. During flooding episodes, the channel can divert up to 4,000 cubic meters (140,000 cubic feet) of water per second before it reaches the Winnipeg area. The floodway carries this outflow around the city before rejoining the mainstem of the Red River in a less-populated area of the flood plain. Since its construction in 1968, the Red River floodway has saved Manitoba more than $32 billion in flood damage.
    In other places, conservationists and engineers have engaged in flood plain restoration. Flood plain restoration is the process of returning a flood plain to its condition before people modified the landscape for development or agriculture. Flood plain restoration may include removing dikes and levees, as well as flooding previously drained marshes and swamps.
    One of the most ambitious flood plain restoration projects is underway in the Lower Danube flood plains of Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. The extensive projects aim to reduce flood damage by restoring flood meadows, which will absorb excess water. Flood plain restoration projects will also provide habitats for endangered species and reduce pollution in the Danube. (Flood meadows absorb chemicals from agricultural and industrial runoff.)
    Houses and businesses that are built on flood plains often require more insurance coverage than buildings constructed on higher ground, because flood damage is more likely to occur.
    A FIRM is a flood insurance rate map. FIRMs display Special Flood Hazard Areas within a flood plain. A Special Flood Hazard Area is simply an area that falls within boundary of a 100-year flood. FIRMs are used to balance the risk of flood against the rate of insurance. 
    FIRMs are divided into different zones based on the zone’s proximity to the floodway. Buildings in the A- or V-zones, for example, are near the banks of the river. All buildings in A zones are required to have flood insurance due to their extremely high risk of flood damage. The floors and service facilities of A-zone buildings (such as air-conditioning units and plumbing) must meet a “base high flood elevation.” Base high flood elevations vary depending on the flood plain and risk posed by a 100-year flood. In the Charlotte, North Carolina, flood plain, for example, the base high flood elevation is one foot above the expected depth of floodwater in a 100-year flood.
    There are strict rules for constructing or remodeling buildings in the A-zone of a flood plain. Basements in A-zones must not be used as living spaces, for example. 
    Urban planners frequently use FIRMs to establish a city’s land-use policies and development zones. Industrial zones, which can include factories with toxic chemicals, may be located far from the floodway in order to prevent pollution of a community’s source of water. Residential zones, which are more difficult to evacuate than hotel-designated zones, may also be more limited along a floodway. Areas closest to the floodway, in contrast, are often designated as “green spaces” and parks.
    flood plain
    Flood plains usually only flood during the rainy season.
    The term “floodway” is sometimes used for a road built at ground level on a flood plain. Floodways are usually constructed on flood plains with low traffic and rare floods.

    Exner Equation
    A mathematical calculation known as the Exner equation helps geologists and hydrologists determine the extent of a flood plain. The Exner equation describes the relationship between the sediment that is transported by a river and the sediment that is deposited by a river. The equation is dominated by the density and distribution of sediment in a river.
    Exner Equation
    bed elevation is the change in bed elevation. time is time. grain packing density is grain packing density. sediment flux is sediment flux.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    100-year flood Noun

    flood that has a one-percent chance of occurring any year. 

    absorb Verb

    to soak up.

    adjacent Adjective

    next to.

    aggradation Noun

    process of raising the level (grade) of a stream or river through the deposit of sediments.

    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    alluvial fan Noun

    fan-shaped deposit of eroded material, usually sediment and sand.

    Encyclopedic Entry: alluvial fan
    alluvium Noun

    gravel, sand, and smaller materials deposited by flowing water.

    ambitious Adjective

    eager to achieve wealth, power, status, or a specific goal.

    aquifer Noun

    an underground layer of rock or earth which holds groundwater.

    Encyclopedic Entry: aquifer
    architecture Noun

    style and design of buildings or open spaces.

    arid Adjective


    bank Noun

    a slope of land adjoining a body of water, or a large elevated area of the sea floor.

    bank filtration Noun

    process in which water is deliberately filtered through the banks or flood plain of a river or lake.

    basalt Noun

    type of dark volcanic rock.

    basin Noun

    a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: basin
    biodiversity Noun

    all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    bluff line Noun

    furthest extent of a flood plain, where the valley floor begins to rise. Also called a valley wall.

    boulder Noun

    large rock.

    braided river Noun

    flowing body of water separated into channels by tiny islands.

    breach Verb

    behavior exhibited by whales, when they jump above the surface of the water.

    cargo Noun

    goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    channel Noun

    deepest part of a shallow body of water, often a passageway for ships.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    commerce Noun

    trade, or the exchange of goods and services.

    conservationist Noun

    person who works to preserve natural habitats.

    crevasse splay Noun

    deposit that forms when a stream breaks its natural or artificial levees and deposits sediment on a flood plain.

    crucial Adjective

    very important.

    cut terrace Noun

    type of fluvial (river-formed) earthen terrace in which the flowing stream erodes the material aggraded on its banks.

    damage Noun

    harm that reduces usefulness or value.

    deftly Adverb

    in a skillful manner.

    delta Noun

    the flat, low-lying plain that sometimes forms at the mouth of a river from deposits of sediments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: delta
    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    designate Verb

    to name or single out.

    devastating Adjective

    very destructive or damaging.

    development Noun

    construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

    dike Noun

    a barrier, usually a natural or artificial wall used to regulate water levels.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dike
    discrete Adjective

    individual or distinct.

    dissipate Verb

    to scatter and disappear.

    distribute Verb

    to divide and spread out materials.

    divert Verb

    to direct away from a familiar path.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    drown Verb

    to die or suffocate in a liquid.

    dry season Noun

    time of year with little precipitation.

    economic Adjective

    having to do with money.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    efficient Adjective

    performing a task with skill and minimal waste.

    emergency shelter Noun

    place where victims of natural disasters, refugees, and other people relocated from their homes can stay for short periods of time.

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    endemic species Noun

    species that naturally occurs in only one area or region.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    ephemeral stream Noun

    body of water that flows only after a fall of precipitation.

    erosion Noun

    act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: erosion
    evacuate Verb

    to leave or remove from a dangerous place.

    evacuation Noun

    removal of people, organisms, or objects from an endangered area.

    extension Noun

    additional part of a larger project or organization.

    extraordinary Adjective

    unusual or uncommon.

    farming Noun

    the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.

    fertile Adjective

    able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

    fill terrace Noun

    type of fluvial (river-formed) earthen terrace formed by the build-up of sediment on a river's banks.

    filter Verb

    to remove particles from a substance by passing the substance through a screen or other material that catches larger particles and lets the rest of the substance pass through.

    FIRM Noun

    flood insurance rate map.

    flank Noun

    side of something.

    flash flood Noun

    sudden, short, and heavy flow of water.

    flood Verb

    to overflow or cover in water or another liquid.

    flood fringe Noun

    outer area of a flood plain, often waterlogged by a flood but not experiencing currents.

    flood meadow Noun

    area of grassland next to a river or stream, prone to seasonal flooding.

    flood plain Noun

    flat area alongside a stream or river that is subject to flooding.

    Encyclopedic Entry: flood plain
    floodway Noun

    main channel of a river in a flood plain.

    fluvial terrace Noun

    tiered, step-shaped feature that flanks the banks of a river or stream.

    fodder Noun

    food for livestock consisting of whole plants.

    forest Noun

    ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

    geologic Adjective

    having to do with the physical formations of the Earth.

    geologist Noun

    person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.

    gills Plural Noun

    respiratory organs that draw oxygen from water and into the bloodstream.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    gorge Noun

    deep, narrow valley with steep sides, usually smaller than a canyon.

    Encyclopedic Entry: gorge
    grain Noun

    harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: grain
    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    green space Noun

    area of undeveloped land usually used for recreation.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    industry Noun

    activity that produces goods and services.

    infrastructure Noun

    structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

    insurance Noun

    money paid in good health to guarantee financial or physical health if injury or damage occurs.

    irrigation Noun

    watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

    Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation
    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    levee Noun

    bank of a river, raised either naturally or constructed by people.

    Encyclopedic Entry: levee
    livestock noun, plural noun

    animals raised for sale and profit.

    logistical Adjective

    having to do with the management or movement of goods and services.

    lucrative Adjective

    profitable or money-making.

    lung Noun

    organ in an animal that is necessary for breathing.

    mainstem Noun

    largest river or channel in a watershed or drainage basin.

    marsh Noun

    wetland area usually covered by a shallow layer of seawater or freshwater.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marsh
    meander Noun

    large curve in a lake or stream.

    Mesopotamia Noun

    ancient region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, today lying mostly in Iraq.

    migration corridor Noun

    area connecting wildlife habitats disturbed and interrupted by human activity. Also called a green corridor.

    natural disaster Noun

    an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.

    navigate Verb

    to plan and direct the course of a journey.

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    obstacle Noun

    something that slows or stops progress.

    oxbow lake Noun

    lake formed from an abandoned bend in a river.

    Encyclopedic Entry: oxbow lake
    pasture Noun

    type of agricultural land used for grazing livestock.

    phenomenon Noun

    an unusual act or occurrence.

    plumbing Noun

    system of pipes for transporting liquids to and from a building.

    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    precipitation Noun

    all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation
    predict Verb

    to know the outcome of a situation in advance.

    primitive Adjective

    simple or crude.

    proximity Noun


    purification Noun


    rainy season Noun

    time of year when most of the rain in a region falls.

    ranch Noun

    large farm on which livestock are raised.

    rapids Noun

    areas of fast-flowing water in a river or stream that is making a slight descent.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rapids
    relocate Verb

    to move a residence or business from one place to another.

    residential Adjective

    having to do with people's homes.

    riparian Adjective

    having to do with a river or stream.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    river valley Noun

    depression in the earth caused by a river eroding the surrounding soil.

    runoff Noun

    overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: runoff
    saturate Verb

    to fill one substance with as much of another substance as it can take.

    sea level rise Noun

    increase in the average reach of the ocean. The current sea level rise is 1.8 millimeters (.07 inch) per year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Sea Level Rise
    seasonal Adjective

    likely to change with the seasons.

    sediment Noun

    solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

    Encyclopedic Entry: sediment
    seep Verb

    to slowly flow through a border.

    silt Noun

    small sediment particles.

    Encyclopedic Entry: silt
    stream Noun

    body of flowing fluid.

    stream gradient Noun

    measurement of how steep a riverbed is.

    subsidence Noun

    sinking or lowering of the Earth's surface, either by natural or man-made processes.

    susceptible Adjective

    able to be influenced to behave a certain way.

    swamp Noun

    land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

    Encyclopedic Entry: swamp
    swath Noun

    path or line of material.

    terrain Noun

    topographic features of an area.

    threat Noun


    topsoil Noun

    the most valuable, upper layer of soil, where most nutrients are found.

    toxic Adjective


    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

    transportation Noun

    movement of people or goods from one place to another.

    tributary Noun

    stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tributary
    tugay Noun

    woodland area flanking a river on a flood plain. Also called a riparian forest.

    urban area Noun

    developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

    Encyclopedic Entry: urban area
    urban planner Noun

    person who works to create or improve the natural, built, economic, and social environments of urban areas.

    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.

    vast Adjective

    huge and spread out.

    vegetation Noun

    all the plant life of a specific place.

    velocity Noun

    measurement of the rate and direction of change in the position of an object.

    vital Adjective

    necessary or very important.

    waterlogged Adjective

    flooded or overflowing with water.

    water meadow Noun

    area of grassland next to a river or stream, intentionally flooded to maintain fertility and dissipate floodwaters.

    wetland Noun

    area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: wetland
    whitewater Noun

    fast-moving parts of a river.