Aggradation (or alluviation) is the term used in geology for the increase in land elevation, typically in a river system, due to the deposition of sediment. Aggradation occurs in areas in which the supply of sediment is greater than the amount of material that the system is able to transport. The mass balance between sediment being transported and sediment in the bed is described by the Exner equation.
Typical aggradational environments include lowland alluvial rivers, river deltas, and alluvial fans. Aggradational environments are often undergoing slow subsidence which balances the increase in land surface elevation due to aggradation. After millions of years, an aggradational environment will become a sedimentary basin, which contains the deposited sediment, including paleochannels and ancient floodplains.
Aggradation can be caused by changes in climate, land use, and geologic activity, such as volcanic eruption, earthquakes, and faulting. For example, volcanic eruptions may lead to rivers carrying more sediment than the flow can transport: this leads to the burial of the old channel and its floodplain. In another example, the quantity of sediment entering a river channel may increase when climate becomes drier. The increase in sediment is caused by a decrease in soil binding that results from plant growth being suppressed. The drier conditions cause river flow to decrease at the same time as sediment is being supplied in greater quantities, resulting in the river becoming choked with sediment.
Natural levees commonly form around lowland rivers and creeks without human intervention. They are elongate ridges of mud and/or silt that form on the river floodplains immediately adjacent to the cut banks. Like artificial levees, they act to reduce the likelihood of floodplain inundation.
Deposition of levees is a natural consequence of the flooding of meandering rivers which carry high proportions of suspended sediment in the form of fine sands, silts, and muds. Because the carrying capacity of a river depends in part on its depth, the sediment in the water which is over the flooded banks of the channel is no longer capable of keeping the same amount of fine sediments in suspension as the main thalweg. The extra fine sediments thus settle out quickly on the parts of the floodplain nearest to the channel. Over a significant number of floods, this will eventually result in the building up of ridges in these positions, and reducing the likelihood of further floods and episodes of levee building.
If aggradation continues to occur in the main channel, this will make levee overtopping more likely again, and the levees can continue to build up. In some cases this can result in the channel bed eventually rising above the surrounding floodplains, penned in only by the levees around it; an example is the Yellow River in China near the sea, where oceangoing ships appear to sail high above the plain on the elevated river.
Levees are common in any river with a high suspended sediment fraction, and thus are intimately associated with meandering channels, which also are more likely to occur where a river carries large fractions of suspended sediment. For similar reasons, they are also common in tidal creeks, where tides bring in large amounts of coastal silts and muds. High spring tides will cause flooding, and result in the building up of levees.
Fluvial terraces are elongated terraces that flank the sides of floodplains and fluvial valleys all over the world. They consist of a relatively level strip of land, called a "tread," separated from either an adjacent floodplain, other fluvial terraces, or uplands by distinctly steeper strips of land called "risers." These terraces lie parallel to and above the river channel and its floodplain. Because of the manner in which they form, fluvial terraces are underlain by fluvial sediments of highly variable thickness.
Fluvial terraces are the remnants of earlier floodplains that existed at a time when either a stream or river was flowing at a higher elevation before its channel downcut to create a new floodplain at a lower elevation. Changes in elevation can be due to changes in the base level (elevation of the lowest point in the fluvial system, usually the drainage basin) of the fluvial system, which leads to headward erosion along the length of either a stream or river, gradually lowering its elevation. For example, downcutting by a river can lead to increased velocity of a tributary, causing that tributary to erode toward its headwaters. Terraces can also be left behind when the volume of the fluvial flow declines due to changes in climate, typical of areas which were covered by ice during periods of glaciation, and their adjacent drainage basins.