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Physical Methods
Stream order is a measure of the relative size of streams. Stream sizes range from the smallest, first-order, to the largest, the twelfth-order (the Amazon River). Over 80% of the total length of Earth's rivers and streams are headwater streams (first- and second-order). As water molecules travel from headwater streams toward the mouth of mighty rivers, streams gradually increase their width and depth. The amount of water they discharge also increases.
Image showing a stream ordering.  This image links to a more detailed image. The image Wheeling Creek stream map shows all of the permanently flowing streams in the Wheeling Creek watershed. Trace the path of a drop of water as it flows down a gradient from headwaters to mouth. How many stream orders must the water pass through to reach the Ohio River? View the image watersheds to see a comparison of the drainage area of third- and fourth-order streams in the Wheeling Creek watershed.  Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Trevor Harris, WVU and Dr. Ben Stout
Image showing a stream ordering. This image links to a more detailed image. You can determine stream order from a map of a stream network. A sample stream ordering diagram to the right is provided to assist you. Start by identifying the smallest streams, those that have no permanently flowing tributaries. First-order streams are perennial streams, which carry water all year. When two first-order streams come together, they become a second-order stream. When two second-order streams come together, they form a third-order stream. However, if a first-order stream joins a second-order stream, it remains a second-order stream. It is not until a second-order stream combines with another second-order stream that it becomes a third-order stream. Print the Wheeling Creek stream map and see if you can determine the stream order of Wheeling Creek where it enters the eighth-order Ohio River. Photo: Courtesy of Hope Sacco Childers
Image of a first-order stream in a forested area of the Wheeling Creek watershed.  This image links to a more detailed image. A first-order stream in a forested area of the Wheeling Creek watershed. Notice the narrow stream width and the closed forest canopy. This stream is well-shaded during the months when leaves are on the trees. Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth E. Rastall
Image of a second-order stream in the headwaters of Wheeling Creek.  This image links to a more detailed image. A second-order stream in the headwaters of Wheeling Creek. Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth E. Rastall
Image of a fourth order stream.  This image links to a more detailed image. A second-order stream joins a fourth-order stream. Does the fourth-order stream double in size with the addition of a second-order stream? Photo: Courtesy of Pamela S. Rastall
Image of a third order stream.  This image links to a more detailed image. A third-order stream. How does the stream's width and forest canopy compare with those of the first-order stream and the sixth-order stream? Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth E. Rastall
Image showing an aerial view of a third-order stream entering a fourth-order stream.  This image links to a more detailed image. Aerial view of a third-order stream entering a fourth-order stream. Does stream order change when this tributary enters the larger stream? Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Ben Stout
Image of some grassy water near the Ohio River.  This image links to a more detailed image. Wheeling Creek nearing the Ohio River. How does this stream differ from those above? Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Ben Stout

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