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A stream is a flowing body of water with a current, confined within a bed and stream banks. Depending on its locale or certain characteristics, a stream may be referred to as a branch, brook, beck, burn, creek, kill, lick, rill, river syke, bayou, rivulet, or run. In some countries or communities a stream may be defined by its size. In the United Statesmarker a stream is classified as a watercourse less than 60 feet (18 metres) wide.Streams are important as conduits in the water cycle, instruments in groundwater recharge, and they serve as corridors for fish and wildlife migration. The biological habitat in the immediate vicinity of a stream is called a riparian zone. Given the status of the ongoing Holocene extinction event, streams play an important corridor role in connecting fragmented habitat and thus in conserving biodiversity. Stream is an umbrella term used in the scientific community for all flowing natural waters, regardless of size. The study of streams and waterways in general is known as surface hydrology and is a core element of environmental geography.


Creek at the Uluguru Mountains which forms the Ruvu river
River: A large natural stream, which may be a waterway.
*In North America and Australia, a small to medium sized natural stream. Sometimes navigable by motor craft and may be intermittent.
*In parts of New Englandmarker, the UK and India, a tidal inlet, typically in a salt marsh or mangrove swamp, or between enclosed and drained former salt marshes or swamps (e.g. Port Creek separating Portsea Islandmarker from the mainland). In these cases, the stream is the tidal stream, the course of the seawater through the creek channel at low and high tide.
Tributary: A contributory stream, or a stream which does not reach the sea but joins another river (a parent river). Sometimes also called a branch or fork.
Brook: A stream smaller than a creek, especially one that is fed by a spring or seep. It is usually small and easily forded. A brook is characterized by its shallowness and its bed being composed primarily of rocks.

Other names

In the United Kingdommarker, there are several regional names for a stream:

In North America:
  • Bourn in Cascadia refers mostly to wide but relatively short, stilly streams with broad, rocky and gravelly beaches/banks, uneven bottoms very deep in some places but dappled with small, rocky aights, with uncommonly clear water except for adjacent pools filled with debris and plant life in which fishes and amphibians spawn. Often a distributary of a river and a tributary of a coastal or lakeside marsh, or, somewhat less frequently, an "independent" (not especially near a lake or ocean) swamp or other wetland.
  • Kill in New Yorkmarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, Delawaremarker, and New Jerseymarker comes from a Dutch language word meaning "riverbed" or "water channel", and can also be used for the "UK" meaning of 'creek'.
  • Run in Ohiomarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, Marylandmarker, or Virginiamarker can be the name of a stream.
  • Branch, fork, or prong can refer to tributaries or distributaries that share the same name as the main stream, generally with the addition of a cardinal direction.
  • Branch is also used to name streams in Marylandmarker and Virginiamarker.

Parts of a stream

Spring: The point at which a stream emerges from an underground course through unconsolidated sediments or through caves. A stream can, especially with caves, flow aboveground for part of its course, and underground for part of its course.
Source: The spring from which the stream originates, or other point of origin of a stream.
Headwaters: The part of a stream or river proximate to its source. The word is most commonly used in the plural where there is no single point source.
Confluence: The point at which the two streams merge. If the two tributaries are of approximately equal size, the confluence may be called a fork.
Run: A somewhat smoothly flowing segment of the stream.
Pool: A segment where the water is deeper and slower moving.
Riffle: A segment where the flow is shallower and more turbulent.
Channel: A depression created by constant erosion that carries the stream's flow.
Floodplain: Lands adjacent to the stream that are subject to flooding when a stream overflows its banks.
Stream bed: The bottom of a stream.
Gauging station: A point of demarkation along the route of a stream or river, used for reference marking or water monitoring.
Thalweg: The river's longitudinal section, or the line joining the deepest point in the channel at each stage from source to mouth.
Wetted perimeter: The line on which the stream's surface meets the channel walls.
Nickpoint: The point on a stream's profile where a sudden change in stream gradient occurs.
Waterfall or cascade: The fall of water where the stream goes over a sudden drop called a nickpoint; some nickpoints are formed by erosion when water flows over an especially resistant stratum, followed by one less so. The stream expends kinetic energy in "trying" to eliminate the nickpoint.
Mouth: The point at which the stream discharges, possibly via an estuary or delta, into a static body of water such as a lake or ocean.


Streams typically derive most of their water from precipitation in the form of rain and snow. Most of this water re-enters the atmosphere by evaporation from soil and water bodies, or by the evapotranspiration of plants. Some of the water proceeds to sink into the earth by infiltration and becomes groundwater, much of which eventually enters streams. Some precipitated water is temporarily locked up in snow fields and glaciers, to be released later by evaporation or melting. The rest of the water flows off the land as runoff, the proportion of which varies according to many factors, such as wind, humidity, vegetation, rock types, and relief. This runoff starts as a thin film called sheet wash, combined with a network of tiny rills, together constituting sheet runoff; when this water is concentrated in a channel, a stream has its birth.


To qualify as a stream it must be either recurring or perennial. Recurring streams have water in the channel for at least part of the year. A stream of the first order is a stream which does not have any other stream feeding into it. When two first-order streams come together, they form a second-order stream. When two second-order streams come together, they form a third-order stream. Streams of lower order joining a higher order stream do not change the order of the higher stream. Thus, if a first-order stream joins a second-order stream, it remains a second-order stream. It is not until a second-order stream combines with another second-order stream that it becomes a third-order stream.
The gradient of a stream is a critical factor in determining its character and is entirely determined by its base level of erosion. The base level of erosion is the point at which the stream either enters the ocean, a lake or pond, or enters a stretch in which it has a much lower gradient, and may be specifically applied to any particular stretch of a stream.
In geologic terms, the stream will erode down through its bed to achieve the base level of erosion throughout its course. If this base level is low, then the stream will rapidly cut through underlying strata and have a steep gradient, and if the base level is relatively high, then the stream will form a flood plain and meander.
Meanders are looping changes of direction of a stream caused by the erosion and deposition of bank materials. These are typically serpentine in form. Typically, over time the meanders gradually migrate downstream.
If some resistant material slows or stops the downstream movement of a meander, a stream may erode through the neck between two legs of a meander to become temporarily straighter, leaving behind an arc-shaped body of water termed an oxbow lake or bayou. A flood may also cause a meander to be cut through in this way.
Typically, streams are said to have a particular profile, beginning with steep gradients, no flood plain, and little shifting of channel, eventually evolving into streams with low gradients, wide flood plains, and extensive meanders. The initial stage is sometimes termed a "young" or "immature" stream, and the later state a "mature" or "old" stream. However, a stream may meander for some distance before falling into a "young" stream condition.

Intermittent and ephemeral streams

In the United Statesmarker, an intermittent stream is one that only flows for part of the year and is marked on topographic maps with a line of blue dashes and dots. A wash or desert wash is normally a dry streambed in the deserts of the American Southwest which flows only after significant rainfall. Washes can fill up quickly during rains, and there may be a sudden torrent of water after a thunderstorm begins upstream, such as during monsoonal conditions. These flash floods often catch travelers by surprise. An intermittent stream can also be called an arroyo in Latin America, a winterbourne in Britain, or a wadi in the Arabic-speaking world.

In Italymarker an intermittent stream is termed a torrent . In full flood the stream may or may not be "torrential" in the dramatic sense of the word, but there will be one or more seasons in which the flow is reduced to a trickle or less. Typically torrents have Apenninemarker rather than Alpine sources, and in the summer they are fed by little precipitation and no melting snow. In this case the maximum discharge will be during the spring and autumn. However there are also glacial torrents with a different seasonal regime.

A blue-line stream is one which flows for most or all of the year and is marked on topographic maps with a solid blue line. In Australia, an intermittent stream is usually called a creek and marked on topographic maps with a solid blue line.

Generally, streams that flow only during and immediately after precipitation are termed ephemeral. There is no clear demarkation between surface runoff and ephemeral stream.

Drainage basins

The extent of land basin drained by a stream is termed its drainage basin (also known in North America as the watershed and, in British English, as a catchment). A basin may also be composed of smaller basins. For instance, the Continental Divide in North America divides the mainly easterly-draining Atlantic Oceanmarker and Arctic Oceanmarker basins from the largely westerly-flowing Pacific Oceanmarker basin. The Atlantic Ocean basin, however, may be further subdivided into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexicomarker drainages. (This delineation is termed the Eastern Continental Dividemarker.) Similarly, the Gulf of Mexico basin may be divided into the Mississippi River basin and several smaller basins, such as the Tombigbee River basin. Continuing in this vein, a component of the Mississippi River basin is the Ohio River basin, which in turn includes the Kentucky River basin, and so forth.

See also


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