A general hierarchical framework for viewing stepped-bed morphology in high-gradient channels is presented. We emphasize channel units—bed features that are one or more channel widths in length—as a particularly important scale of variation. Field studies in two streams in the Cascade Range in Oregon indicated that pool, riffle, rapid, cascade, and step channel units had distinct bed slope ranges, with average slopes of 0.005, 0.011, 0.029, 0.055, and 0.173, respectively. Steeper units (rapids and cascades) are composed of step-pool sequences created by particles representing the 90th or larger percentile size fraction of bed material. Step spacing is inversely proportional to bed slope.
The distribution of channel units along a stream is influenced by bedrock and processes that introduce coarse sediment. Cascade and pool units dominate where landslide and debris-flow deposits constrict channel width and deliver large immobile boulders to the channel, whereas riffle and rapid units dominate in broad valley flats where deposition of finer sediment occurs. Markov chain analysis indicates that channel units occur in nonrandom two-unit sequences with the slope of the upstream unit inversely proportional to the slope of the next downstream unit. Pool-to-pool spacings average two to four channel widths, but variability in spacing is high, owing to uneven distribution of bedrock out-crops and boulder deposits within the channel.
Hydraulic reconstruction indicates that channel units form during high- magnitude, low-frequency events with recurrence intervals of about 50 yr. Comparison of channel-unit morphology to high-gradient flume experiments with heterogenous bedload mixtures indicated that unit morphogenesis is linked to factors that cause congestion of large particles during bedload transport events; these include local constrictions in channel width, immobile bed material, and abrupt fluctuations in velocity due to hydraulic jumps that promote deposition. Channel units appear to be a two-dimensional bar form found in streams where gradients exceed 2%, bedload is widely sorted, and width-to-depth ratios and sediment supply are low—conditions found in many mountain environments.