Tropical forests are the only forest biome to have experienced increased rates of forest loss during the past decade because of global demands for food and biofuels. The implications of such extensive forest clearing on the dynamics of tropical river systems remain relatively unknown, despite significant progress in our understanding of the role of trees in riverbank stability. Here, we document rates of deforestation and corresponding average annual rates of riverbank erosion along the freely meandering Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysia, from Landsat satellite imagery spanning A.D. 1989–2014. We estimate that deforestation removed over half of the river's floodplain forest and up to 30% of its riparian cover, which increased rates of riverbank erosion by >23% within our study reaches. Further, the correlation between the magnitude of planform curvature and rates of riverbank erosion only became strongly positive and significant following deforestation, suggesting an important role of forests in the evolution of meandering rivers, even when riverbank heights exceed the depth of root penetration.
- Received 28 October 2016.
- Revision received 3 February 2017.
- Accepted 5 February 2017.
- ©The Authors
Gold Open Access: This paper is published under the terms of the CC-BY license.