Thursday, August 3, 2023
  Faculty Focus

By Maria Gonzalez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – AUG. 03, 2023 – Dr. Tian Y. Dong, assistant professor of Ocean, Coastal, and Earth Sciences at the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences (SEEMS), has been published as co-author of a research paper accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Nature Geoscience.

The article, "Lowland River Sinuosity on Earth and Mars Set by the Pace of Meandering and Avulsion," was led by Dr. Chenliang Wu, postdoctoral researcher at Tulane University in Louisiana.

The research investigates the concept of river sinuosity – the curviness of a river path – and its implications for understanding the behavior of rivers on Earth and Mars.

As co-author, Dong contributed to the conception of ideas, writing, data analysis and editing.

The study examined river sinuosity in 21 rivers on Earth and six ancient Mars River Systems, unveiling two distinct sinuosity (curving) patterns differing from previous observations.

"We discovered that sinuosity either increases or remains constant as the river approaches its outlet at the coast," Dong said.

The authors utilized a computer model to explain these patterns, attributing them to the interplay between river avulsion (abruptly switching course) and lateral migration.

Dr. Tian Y. Dong
Dr. Tian Y. Dong, assistant professor at UTRGV's SEEMS department, has been published as a co-author of a research paper accepted in the prestigious journal, Nature Geoscience. (Courtesy photo)

"The results showed that rivers with highly variable water discharge migrate faster and display no spatial trend in sinuosity, like the Rio Grande," he explained.

Dong's research motivation stemmed from the need to better understand river behavior under the changing water and sediment supply.

"Processes like meandering, the winding of a river course and river avulsions, an abrupt shift in the river's flow path, are often connected to severe flooding in inhabited floodplains," he said. “Therefore, studying how rivers will behave as the climate changes is crucial."

He said the research also has broader implications for space exploration.

"By gaining insights into Earth's rivers, we can better understand the climate on exoplanets such as Mars and Titan," Dong said.

Dr. Thomas B. Spencer, associate vice president for Research Operations at UTRGV, said publication of the article emphasizes the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

"We are very proud of the work Professor Dong is doing, and we extend our congratulations to him for this publication," Spencer said. “His cross-disciplinary collaboration sets a remarkable example for both students and fellow faculty at UTRGV. And his contributions to the field of geoscience are a testament to the exceptional research environment at our university."

Dong said the insights gained from this research promise far-reaching implications for the field of geoscience.

"The work highlights the importance of variable water discharge and sediment supply in setting the lateral migration rate of meandering rivers," Dong said. "That is a critical piece of information for river restoration, infrastructure design and land management."

The river sinuosity research led by Wu and conducted by Dong and the research team also has provided valuable insight into the unique behavior of the Rio Grande.

"Situated in a semi-arid climate, the Rio Grande has constant sinuosity from inland to the coast," Dong said. "This information eventually led us to discover the dichotomy patterns in lowland river sinuosity."

Dr. Juan González, interim SEEMS director, said the research and resulting dataset from Earth's meandering rivers and remote sensing data from Mars' rivers is groundbreaking.

“The research on the geomorphology – the scientific study of landforms – of meandering river systems has important societal implications,” González said. "This paper will be cited for years to come."

To access the Nature Geoscience paper, visit


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.