Flow Competence: A Criticism of a Classic Concept
Processes and Landforms
The largest grains found in samples of transported sediment are commonly used to estimate flow competence. With samples from a range of flows, a relationship between the flow and the largest mobile grain can be derived and used to estimate the critical shear stress for incipient motion of the different grain sizes in the bed sediment or, inversely, to estimate the magnitude of the flow from the largest grain found in a transport sample. Because these estimates are based on an extreme value of the transport grain-size distribution, however, they are subject to large errors and are sensitive to the effect of sample size, which tends to vary widely in sediment transport samples from natural flows. Furthermore, estimates of the critical shear stress based on the largest sampled moving grain cannot be scaled in a manner that permits reasonable comparison between fractions. The degree to which sample size and scaling problems make largest-grain estimates of fractional critical shear stress deviate from a true relationship cannot be predicted exactly, although the direction of such a deviation can be demonstrated. The large errors and unknown bias suggest that the largest sampled mobile grain is not a reliable predictor of either critical shear stress or flow magnitude. It is possible to define a single flow competence for the entire mixture, based on a central value of the transport grain-size distribution. Such a measure is relatively stable, does not require between-fraction scaling, and appears to be well supported by observation.
Wilcock, P.R., 1992. Flow Competence: A criticism of a classic concept, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 17(3):289-98.