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Deadly river ‘earthquakes’ could be manageable

Rivers run deep with history. Civilizations have blossomed along the fertile banks of the world’s great rivers, such as the Yellow River in China and the Mississippi River in the United States.

Yet, rivers can be dastardly: From time to time, their floods will wipe out the communities they helped cultivate. One source of these floods is avulsions, in which a buildup of sediment leads to river overflows. Those overflows take rivers on entirely new courses, leaving catastrophic damage, displacement, and death in their wake.

The timing of avulsions—and means of combating them—has mystified scientists and engineers. Now, new modeling techniques show promise in predicting avulsions, leading to hope that the disasters they entail can be averted. This video details how and why avulsions occur, drawing on history—including one of the most deadly acts of war—and science to examine the nature of these phenomena.