Characterizing and modeling wet stream length dynamics in Appalachian headwaters

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Virginia Tech


Headwater streams change in wet length in response to storm events and seasonal moisture conditions. These low-order channels with temporary flow are pervasive across arid and humid environments yet receive little attention in comparison to perennial waterways. This dissertation examines headwater stream length dynamics at multiple spatial and temporal scales across the Appalachians. I mapped wet stream length in four Appalachian physiographic provinces--the Appalachian Plateau, Blue Ridge, New England, and Valley and Ridge--to characterize seasonal expansion and contraction of the wet network at a broad, regional scale. Conversely, most existing field studies of stream length in headwaters are limited to a single study area or geographic setting. Field mappings showed that wet stream length varies widely within the Appalachians; network dynamics correlated with regional geology as well as local site lithology, geologic structure, and the depth, size, and spatial distribution of surficial sediment deposits. I used the field data to create logistic regression models of the wet network in each physiographic province at high and low runoffs. Topographic metrics derived from elevation data were able to explain the discontinuous pattern of headwater streams at different flow conditions with high classification accuracy. Finally, I used flow intermittency sensors in a single Valley and Ridge catchment to record channel wetting and drying at a high temporal resolution. The sensors indicated stream length hysteresis during storms with low antecedent moisture, with a higher wet network proportion on the rising limb than on the falling limb of events. As a result, maximum network extension can precede peak runoff by minutes to hours. Accurate maps of headwater streams and an understanding of wet network dynamics through time are invaluable for applications surrounding watershed management and environmental policy. These findings will contribute to the burgeoning research on temporary streams and are additionally relevant for studies of runoff generation, biogeochemical cycling, and mass fluxes of material from headwaters.



Appalachian Highlands, drainage density, headwaters, hysteresis, logistic regression, physiographic provinces, stream length, temporary streams