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Rivers are part of the hydrological cycle. Water generally collects in a river from precipitation through a drainage basin from surface runoff and other sources such as groundwater recharge, springs, and the release of stored water in natural ice and snowpacks (e.g. from glaciers). Potamology is the scientific study of rivers while limnology is the study of inland waters in general.
Extraterrestrial rivers of liquid hydrocarbons have recently been found on Titan. Channels may indicate past rivers on other planets, specifically outflow channels on Mars and rivers are theorised to exist on planets and moons in habitable zones of stars.
A river begins at a source (or more often several sources), follows a path called a course, and ends at a mouth or mouths. The water in a river is usually confined to a channel, made up of a stream bed between banks. In larger rivers there is often also a wider floodplain shaped by flood-waters over-topping the channel. Floodplains may be very wide in relation to the size of the river channel. This distinction between river channel and floodplain can be blurred, especially in urban areas where the floodplain of a river channel can become greatly developed by housing and industry.
Rivers can flow down mountains, through valleys (depressions) or along plains, and can create canyons or gorges.
The term upriver (or upstream) refers to the direction towards the source of the river, i.e. against the direction of flow. Likewise, the term downriver (or downstream) describes the direction towards the mouth of the river, in which the current flows.
The term left bank refers to the left bank in the direction of flow, right bank to the right.
The river channel typically contains a single stream of water, but some rivers flow as several interconnecting streams of water, producing a braided river. Extensive braided rivers are now found in only a few regions worldwide, such as the South Island of New Zealand. They also occur on peneplains and some of the larger river deltas. Anastamosing rivers are similar to braided rivers and are also quite rare. They have multiple sinuous channels carrying large volumes of sediment. There are rare cases of river bifurcation in which a river divides and the resultant flows ending in different seas. An example is the bifurcation of Nerodime River in Kosovo. The River Cam from the Green Dragon Bridge, Cambridge (Britain)
A river flowing in its channel is a source of energy which acts on the river channel to change its shape and form. In 1757, the German hydrologist Albert Brahms empirically observed that the submerged weight of objects that may be carried away by a river is proportional to the sixth power of the river flow speed. This formulation is also sometimes called Airy's law. Thus, if the speed of flow is doubled, the flow would dislodge objects with 64 times as much submerged weight. In mountainous torrential zones this can be seen as erosion channels through hard rocks and the creation of sands and gravels from the destruction of larger rocks. In U-shaped glaciated valleys, the subsequent[clarification needed] river valley can often easily be identified by the V-shaped channel that it has carved. In the middle reaches where a river flows over flatter land, meanders may form through erosion of the river banks and deposition on the inside of bends. Sometimes the river will cut off a loop, shortening the channel and forming an oxbow lake or billabong. Rivers that carry large amounts of sediment may develop conspicuous deltas at their mouths. Rivers whose mouths are in saline tidal waters may form estuaries.
Throughout the course of the river, the total volume of water transported downstream will often be a combination of the free water flow together with a substantial volume flowing through sub-surface rocks and gravels that underlie the river and its floodplain (called the hyporheic zone). For many rivers in large valleys, this unseen component of flow may greatly exceed the visible flow.
A stream is a body of water with a current, confined within a bed and banks. Depending on its location or certain characteristics, a stream may be referred to as a branch, brook, beck, burn, creek, crick, ghyll, gill, kill, lick, mill race, race, rill, river, syke, bayou, rivulet, streamage, wash, run, or runnel.
Streams are important as conduits in the water cycle, instruments in groundwater recharge, and 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, streams play an important corridor role in connecting fragmented habitats and thus in conserving biodiversity. The study of streams and waterways in general is known as surface hydrology and is a core element of environmental geography
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 characterised by its shallowness and its bed being composed primarily of rocks.
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. Some creeks may start from ponds or lakes.