Drainage networks are important geomorphologic and hydrologic features which significantly control runoff generation. Drainage networks are composed of unchannelized valleys and channels. At valley heads, flow changes from unconfined sheet flow on the hillslope to confined flow in valley. Localized confined flow dominates in valleys as a result of convergent topography with positive curvature. Channels initiate at some distance down from the valley head, and the transition from unchannelized valley to channel is referred to as the channel head. Channel heads occur at a point where fluvial transport dominates over diffusive transport. From the hydrologic perspective, channels are categorized as perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams based on the flow durations. Perennial streams flow for the most of the time during normal years and are maintained by groundwater discharge. Intermittent (i.e. seasonal) streams flow during certain times of the year receiving water from surface sources such as melting snow or from groundwater. Lastly, ephemeral streams flow only in direct response to precipitation without continuous surface flow. In this dissertation, the hydrologic controls on the drainage networks extracted from high resolution Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) based on Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) are investigated. A method for automatic extraction of valley and channel networks from high-resolution DEMs is presented. This method utilizes both positive (i.e., convergent topography) and negative (i.e., divergent topography) curvature to delineate the valley network. The valley and ridge skeletons are extracted using the pixels' curvature and the local terrain conditions. The valley network is generated by checking the terrain for the existence of at least one ridge between two intersecting valleys. The transition from unchannelized to channelized sections (i.e., channel head) in each 1st-order valley tributary is identified independently by categorizing the corresponding contours using an unsupervised approach based on K-means clustering. The method does not require a spatially constant channel initiation threshold (e.g., curvature or contributing area). Moreover, instead of a point attribute (e.g., curvature), the proposed clustering method utilizes the shape of contours, which reflects the entire cross-sectional profile including possible banks. The method was applied to three catchments: Indian Creek and Mid Bailey Run in Ohio, and Feather River in California. The accuracy of channel head extraction from the proposed method is comparable to state-of-the-art channel extraction methods. Valleys extracted from DEMs may be wet (flowing) or dry at any given time depending on the hydrologic conditions. The temporal dynamics of flowing streams are vitally important for understanding hydrologic processes including surface water and groundwater interaction and hydrograph recession. However, observations of wet channel networks are limited, especially in headwater catchments. Near infrared LiDAR data provide an opportunity to map wet channel networks owing to the fine spatial resolution and strong absorption of light energy by water surfaces. A systematic method is developed to map wet channel networks by integrating elevation and signal intensity of ground returns. The signal intensity thresholds for identifying wet pixels are extracted from frequency distributions of intensity return within the convergent topography extent using a Gaussian mixture model. Moreover, the concept of edge in digital image processing, defined based on the intensity gradient, is utilized to enhance detection of small wet channels. The developed method was applied to the Lake Tahoe area based on eight LiDAR acquisitions during recession periods in five watersheds. A power-law relationship between streamflow and wetted channel length during recession periods was derived, and the scaling exponent (LαQ^0.38) is within the range of reported values from fieldwork in other regions. Several studies in the past focused on the relationship between drainage density (i.e., drainage length divided by drainage area) and long-term climate and reported a U-shape pattern. In this dissertation, this relationship was re-visited and the effect of drainage area on drainage density was investigated. Long-term climate was quantified by climate aridity indices which is the ratio between long-term potential evaporation and precipitation. 120 study sites across the United States with minimal human disturbance and a wide range of climate aridity index were selected based on the availability of LiDAR data. The drainage networks were delineated from LiDAR-based 1 m DEMs using the proposed curvature-based method. Despite the U-shaped relationship in the literature, our result shows a significant decreasing trend in the drainage density versus climate aridity index in arid regions; whereas no trend is observed in humid watersheds. This observation and its discrepancy with the reported pattern in the literature are justified considering the dynamics of the runoff erosive force and the resistance of vegetation and the climate controls on them. Our findings suggest that natural drainage networks in arid regions are more sensitive to the change in long-term climate conditions compared with drainage networks in humid climate. It was also found that drainage density has a decreasing trend with drainage area in arid regions; however, no trend was observed in humid regions. In a broader sense, the findings influence our understanding of the formation of drainage networks and the response of hydrologic systems to climate change. The formation and growth of river channels and their network evolution are governed by the erosional and depositional processes operating on the landscape due to movement of water. The branching angles, i.e., the angle between two adjoining channels, in drainage networks are important features related to the network topology and contain valuable information about the forming mechanisms of the landscape. Based on channel networks extracted from 1 m Digital Elevation Models of 120 catchments with minimal human impacts across the United States, we showed that the junction angles have two distinct modes with α1 ≈ 49.5° and α2 ≈ 75.0°. The observed angles are physically explained as the optimal angles that result in minimum energy dissipation and are linked to the exponent characterizing slope-area curve. Our findings suggest that the flow regimes, debris-flow dominated or fluvial, have distinct characteristic angles which are functions of the scaling exponent of the slope-area curve. These findings enable us to understand the geomorphologic signature of hydrologic processes on drainage networks and develop more refined landscape evolution models.

Graduation Date





Wang, Dingbao


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Engineering and Computer Science


Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering

Degree Program

Civil Engineering









Release Date

May 2017

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)