What sets the width of a river channel?
One of the simplest questions in riverine science remains unanswered: “What determines the width of rivers?” While myriad environmental and geological factors have been proposed to control alluvial river size, no accepted theory exists to explain this fundamental characteristic of river systems. We combine analysis of a global dataset with a field study to support a simple hypothesis: River geometry adjusts to the threshold fluid entrainment stress of the most resistant material lining the channel. In addition, we demonstrate how changes in bank strength dictate planform morphology by exerting strong control on channel width. Our findings greatly extend the applicability of threshold channel theory, which was originally developed to explain straight gravel-bedded rivers with uniform grain size and stable banks. The parsimonious threshold-limiting channel model describes the average hydraulic state of natural rivers across a wide range of conditions and may find use in river management, stratigraphy, and planetary science.