A reference river system for the Alps: The 'Fiume Tagliamento'

J. V. Ward, K. Tockner, P. J. Edwards, J. Kollmann, G. Bretschko, A. M. Gurnell, G. E. Petts, B. Rossaro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations


A major deterrent to a full understanding of the ecological ramifications of river regulation at the catchment scale is a lack of fundamental knowledge of structural and functional attributes of morphologically intact river systems. For example, both the River Continuum and the Serial Discontinuity Concepts, in their original formulations, had the implicit assumption of a stable, single-thread channel from headwaters to the sea. The Fiume Tagliamento traverses a course of 172 km from its headwaters in the Italian Alps to the Adriatic Sea. No high dams impede the river's passage as it flows through the characteristic sequence of constrained, braided, and meandering reaches. The Tagliamento, the only large morphologically intact Alpine river remaining in Europe, provides insight into the natural dynamics and complexity that must have characterized Alpine rivers in the pristine state. The Tagliamento has a flashy pluvio-nival regime (mean Q = 109 m3 s-1, with flood flows up to 4000 m3 s-1). Thousands of newly-uprooted trees were strewn across the active bed and floodplain along the river's course following a major flood in the autumn of 1996. The active floodplain is up to 2 km wide and contains a riparian vegetation mosaic encompassing a range of successional stages. Up to 11 individual channels per cross section occur in the braided middle reaches. Islands are a prominent feature of the riverine landscape and island dynamics are postulated to play a key role in determining pattern and process across scales. Future studies will examine the roles of island dynamics and large woody debris in structuring biodiversity patterns of aquatic biota and successional trajectories of riparian vegetation. The high levels of spatiotemporal heterogeneity exhibited by the Fiume Tagliamento provide a valuable perspective for regulated river ecologists and those engaged in conservation and restoration.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-75
Number of pages13
JournalRegulated Rivers: Research and Management
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Alpine rivers
  • Braided rivers
  • European rivers
  • Fiume Tagliamento
  • Floodplain vegetation
  • Islands
  • River corridors
  • Riverine landscapes


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