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 International Conference on Complex Systems (ICCS2007)

The river system as a semiotic scalar hierarchy

Pauline Couper
The College of St Mark & St John

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     Last modified: May 25, 2007

In attempting to understand landscape, landforms and the processes that
produce them, geomorphologists may find themselves working at spatial
scales ranging from sub-millimeter to hundreds of kilometers, and
temporal scales from an instantaneous 'slice-through-time' to millennia.
Reconciling the different views afforded by these multiple scales of
study remains a considerable challenge. Specific processes, such as
river bank erosion, are often contextualized through loosely
hierarchical ideas, but the application of hierarchy in both
geomorphology and more generally within geography has been subject to
considerable criticism.

This paper presents a 'semiotic scalar hierarchy' of a river system,
focusing on river bank erosion, channel change and river sediment
transfers, and based on a field survey of the entire length of a UK
river. Relationships between processes operating at different scales
are considered as semiotic relationships, involving the transmission of
information or meaning. The semiotic hierarchy is found to be
consistent with some of the concepts already established in
geomorphology (such as sensitivity, thresholds and contingency), but
also introduces the notion of anticipation, which is perhaps less
readily identifiable with a physical system. The result is a hierarchy
that is internally consistent, focused on the operation of physical
processes. This places emphasis on the multiple cross-scale interactions
that constitute system dynamics, thus potentially offering a useful
framework for river management as well as addressing some of the
criticisms of hierarchical perspectives.

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