How Does River Form?

River Formation

Rivers carry astonishing amounts of water, but where does all that water come from? Do you think that it probably comes from the rain? But why is there water in the rivers even when it is not raining? In reality, only relatively few drops fall in rivers even when it rains. The most rain falls directly into the oceans, and the rest mainly falls on the ground or vegetation.

Moreover, part of the rain evaporates and returns to the atmosphere very quickly, but also evaporates quite quickly. There is a small amount of rain that remains. Especially when it rains, some of the water will run off the surface, slide down the slopes and finally collect in rivers.

How does a river form?

A river is a natural flowing watercourse, usually freshwater flowing towards an ocean, sea, lake, or another river. River forms from water flowing from higher to lower elevations due to gravity. Most rivers originate high up in the mountains. The place where a river originates is called the source of the river. When glaciers melt due to the sun’s heat, it turns to water and flows down the mountain in small streams, gradually forming a river.

Rain also plays a role in the formation of rivers. When rain falls on the land, it either seeps into the ground or becomes runoff, flowing downhill into the rivers. In comparison, rivers try to find the quickest way toward the sea. Due to the pressure and force, the fast-flowing river erodes the riverbank and soil and takes it with it.

Rivers form snake-like patterns as they flow across the fairly flat valley floors. The fast-flowing side of the river erodes comparatively more than the slow side of the river. Therefore more sediments get deposited on the slow side resulting inland in one side. On the other side, water-creating loops are known as meanders.

All the rivers and streams start at some high point. These streams slowly join together to form larger streams. Eventually, all this water forms rivers and runs into the ocean. A river enters the sea, ocean, or lake is called its mouth.

From the river’s source to its mouth, the forces of moving water erode and shape the land. We call the action of flowing water on fluvial land processes. Fluvial processes can be broken down into three main components: erosion, transportation, and deposition.

For example, a river such as the Yangtze begins its 6300-kilometer journey as meltwater from the glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, where mountain sediment erodes. As a river winds its way eastward across China, it erodes and changes the landscape transporting more material. Eventually, the river reaches the sea, where the material is deposited in the Yangtze River Delta.


Moving water in the form of rivers is an agent of erosion. River water wears away rocks and soil found on the riverbed and banks. Rock particles being carried downstream continue to break down further as the river transports them. There are four main forms of fluvial erosion.

Hydraulic action: The force of river water against the banks can cause air to be trapped and pressured in cracks in the rocks on the riverbank. This continual pressure causes the rocks to crack further and eventually break away.

Abrasion: As the river transports rocks downstream, these rocks wear down the material on the riverbed.

Attrition: Attrition is where the rocks and pebbles being carried by the river smash against each other, Thereby breaking each other down into smaller, rounder, smoother pebbles.

Solution: Solution or corrosion is the chemical erosion of the rocks of the riverbank. Water is slightly acidic, especially where streams flow through rocks like limestone.


Once it has been eroded, material in the river is transported downstream. It depends on the interaction between a river’s velocity and the particles’ size. As a rule, the larger the particle size, the higher the velocity of moving water is required to transport it. When the river’s course is steep, often near its source, velocities are higher, enabling the transportation of large rocks and boulders. During times of flood, energy levels will be even higher.

Transportation takes place in four ways:

Solution: This is where the smallest particles of minerals are dissolved in the water. This usually happens in the middle and lower reaches of a river as it takes some time for the material to be dissolved.

Suspension: Small particles are carried along in the river. This can take place anywhere along the course of the river.

Saltation: Small pebbles bounce along the riverbed. It mainly takes place in the upper and middle sections of the river.

Traction: This is where large boulders and rocks are rolled along the riverbed.

This mainly occurs in the river’s upper reaches as it is the only place where energy is high enough to do so.


When a river loses energy, it will deposit some of its load. Energy levels are lowest when rivers meet the sea or lake and slow down, causing deposition. Deposition features such as deltas can form in these places. The deposition also occurs when the volume of water decreases. It happens at the end of a flood or during a drought. For example, the slower moving water inside a river’s bend will have less energy and therefore drop its load, helping to create a meander.

A major deposition feature is the flood plain in its lower reaches. It is made up of deposited sand and silt, known as alluvium. Therefore, floodplains are very fertile and have supported large agricultural communities since ancient times.


The long profile is a slice through the river from the source to the mouth, as seen in this diagram. Rivers are essentially trying to erode to their base level. That is usually sea level or sometimes a lake that the river may drain into. It is because, without the force of gravity, water will not flow.

Near the river’s source, often high in the mountains, a river will cut vertically to form a steep v-shaped valley. A river often flows through rapids and waterfalls in these mountainous environments. As rivers reach their mid-course, they continue to cut downwards and laterally.

Finally, rivers flow over flat land like a river near the sea. Most of the river’s energy is concentrated on cutting laterally and making the channel wider as it meanders its way towards the river’s mouth. The cross profile of rivers also changes.

Source of river water

There can be water in rivers even weeks after the last rains. So, where does that water come from? It turns out that, especially in winter, when less water evaporates through the plants. Some rainwater can infiltrate into the soil. But what happens when the water infiltrates downwards and reaches the rocks under the topsoil? Well, It depends on what type of rock it finds.

Some rocks contain a lot of small holes, even though they are sometimes so small. These little holes are called pores, and rocks with many pores are said to be porous. When the rocks are porous, water can seep through the holes and continue its journey downward. But some rocks have very few pores. In this case, the rocks are impermeable because water cannot pass through them. If a layer of impermeable rock blocks the downward passage of water, water begins to collect in the porous rocks above.

This way, it can form large underground reservoirs of water known as groundwater aquifers. The water table is the uppermost level in which the pores contain water. Rocks between the water table and the aquifer base can contain more than 20% of their volume of water. It means more than 200 liters of water can be stored in each cubic meter of rock. A cubic meter is more or less the size of a fridge.

The water can no longer infiltrate downward when it reaches an impermeable layer. So it slowly moves, more or less following topography towards places where the water table is the lowest. In some places, the water table might come to the surface. In this case, the water can come underground and return to the surface. In this way, the rivers receive a lot of their water.

The water table level rises and falls with the rain and the seasons. But as long as the level does not drop lower than the river bed, water will seep up through the river bed. Also, the river can continue to flow even when it is not raining. But that’s not all. Many rivers start their course high in the mountains, where the peaks are covered in snow and ice.

These rivers receive a lot of water in spring and summer, which forms when snow and ice melt. For this reason, in the Alps, there is often much more water in rivers in summer than in winter.

  • Some of the water reaches the river as surface runoff when it rains.
  • Some of the water comes from groundwater reservoirs.
  • Finally, some of the water comes from melting snow and ice.

The Nile River is the longest river on earth. It measures around 4132 miles. It runs through or along the border of 10 other African countries. Over vast periods the primitive oceans formed. The water remained gas until the earth cooled below 212 degrees Fahrenheit. About 3.8 billion years ago, the water condensed into rain, filling the basins known as our oceans. We have five oceans that are all connected, namely the.

  • Arctic ocean.
  • Southern ocean.
  • Indian ocean.
  • Atlantic ocean.
  • Pacific ocean.

Near the source, river channels are narrow and shallow due to the steepness of the terrain. Rivers in these environments contain many large boulders and rocks. With all the sediment on the riverbed, there is much turbulence and friction, slowing the water down. When the river has reached this lower course, it flows fastest until it slows down to meet the sea. The channels are deep and wide here, and the banks are the smoothest.

More Articles:


Hawkes, H.A., River zonation and classification. River ecology. Blackwell. pp. 312–374.
Cave, Cristi. “How a River Flows.” Stream Biology and Ecology.
Rosenberg, Matt, “Do All Rivers Flow South?”.

Julia Rose

My name is Julia Rose. I'm a registered clinical therapist, researcher, and coach. I'm the author of this blog. There are also two authors: Dr. Monica Ciagne, a registered psychologist and motivational coach, and Douglas Jones, a university lecturer & science researcher. I would love to hear your opinion, question, suggestions, please let me know. We will try to help you.

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