A viscous fluid flowing over plastic grains spontaneously generates single-thread channels. With time, these laminar analogues of alluvial rivers reach a reproducible steady state, showing a well-defined width and cross section. In the absence of sediment transport, their shape conforms with the threshold hypothesis which states that, at equilibrium, the combined effects of gravity and flow-induced stress maintain the bed surface at the threshold of motion. This theory explains how the channel selects its size and slope for a given discharge. In this light, laboratory rivers illustrate the similarity between the avalanche angle of granular materials and Shields's criterion for sediment transport.
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