The invisible load of streams. Of the waste which a river transports we may consider first the invisible load which it carries in solution, supplied chiefly by springs but also in part by the run-off and from the solution of the rocks of its bed. More than half the dissolved solids in the water of the average river consists of the carbonates of lime and magnesia; other substances are gypsum, sodium sulphate (Glauber’s salts), magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts), sodium chloride (common salt), and even silica, the least soluble of the common rock-making minerals. The amount of this invisible load is surprisingly large. The Mississippi, for example, transports each year 113,000,000 tons of dissolved rock to the Gulf.
The visible load of streams. This consists of the silt which the stream carries in suspension, and the sand and gravel and larger stones which it pushes along its bed. Especially in times of flood one may note the muddy water, its silt being kept from settling by the rolling, eddying currents; and often by placing his ear close to the bottom of a boat one may hear the clatter of pebbles as they are hurried along. In mountain torrents the rumble of bowlders as they clash together may be heard some distance away. The amount of the load which a stream can transport depends on its velocity. A current of two thirds of a mile per hour can move fine sand, while one of four miles per hour sweeps along pebbles as large as hen’s eggs. The transporting power of a stream varies as the sixth power of its velocity. If its velocity is multiplied by two, its transporting power is multiplied by the sixth power of two: it can now move stones sixty-four times as large as it could before.
Stones weigh from two to three times as much as water, and in water lose the weight of the volume of water which they displace. What proportion, then, of their weight in air do stones lose when submerged?
Measurement of stream loads. To obtain the total amount of waste transported by a river is an important but difficult matter. The amount of water discharged must first be found by multiplying the number of square feet in the average cross section of the stream by its velocity per second, giving the discharge per second in cubic feet. The amount of silt to a cubic foot of water is found by filtering samples of the water taken from different parts of the stream and at different times in the year, and drying and weighing the residues. The average amount of silt to the cubic foot of water, multiplied by the number of cubic feet of water discharged per year, gives the total load carried in suspension during that time. Adding to this the estimated amount of sand and gravel rolled along the bed, which in many swift rivers greatly exceeds the lighter material held in suspension, and adding also the total amount of dissolved solids, we reach the exceedingly important result of the total load of waste discharged by the river. Dividing the volume of this load by the area of the river basin gives another result of the greatest geological interest,— the rate at which the region is being lowered by the combined action of weathering and erosion, or the rate of denudation.