In geography, a confluence (also: conflux) occurs where two or more flowing bodies of water join to form a single channel. A confluence can occur in several configurations: at the point where a tributary joins a larger river (main stem); or where two streams meet to become the source of a river of a new name (such as the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers at Pittsburgh, forming the Ohio); or where two separated channels of a river (forming a river island) rejoin at the downstream end.
Confluences are studied in a variety of sciences. Hydrology studies the characteristic flow patterns of confluences and how they give rise to patterns of erosion, bars, and scour pools. The water flows and their consequences are often studied with mathematical models. Confluences are relevant to the distribution of living organisms (i.e., ecology) as well; "the general pattern [downstream of confluences] of increasing stream flow and decreasing slopes drives a corresponding shift in habitat characteristics."
Another science relevant to the study of confluences is chemistry, because sometimes the mixing of the waters of two streams triggers a chemical reaction, particularly in a polluted stream. The United States Geological Survey gives an example: "chemical changes occur when a stream contaminated with acid mine drainage combines with a stream with near-neutral pH water; these reactions happen very rapidly and influence the subsequent transport of metals downstream of the mixing zone."
A natural phenomenon at confluences that is obvious even to casual observers is a difference in color between the two streams; see images in this article for several examples. According to Lynch, "the color of each river is determined by many things: type and amount of vegetation in the watershed, geological properties, dissolved chemicals, sediments and biologic content – usually algae." Lynch also notes that color differences can persist for miles downstream before they finally blend completely.
Hydrodynamic behaviour of flow in a confluence can be divided into six distinct features which are commonly called confluence flow zones (CFZ). These include
Since rivers often serve as political boundaries, confluences sometimes demarcate three abutting political entities, such as nations, states, or provinces, forming a tripoint. Various examples are found in the list below.
A number of major cities, such as Chongqing, St. Louis, and Khartoum, arose at confluences; further examples appear in the list. Within a city, a confluence often forms a visually prominent point, so that confluences are sometimes chosen as the site of prominent public buildings or monuments, as in Koblenz, Lyon, and Winnipeg. Cities also often build parks at confluences, sometimes as projects of municipal improvement, as at Portland and Pittsburgh. In other cases, a confluence is an industrial site, as in Philadelphia or Mannheim. Often a confluence lies in the shared floodplain of the two rivers and nothing is built on it, for example at Manaus, described below.
One other way that confluences may be exploited by humans is as sacred places in religions. Rogers suggests that for the ancient peoples of the Iron Age in northwest Europe, watery locations were often sacred, especially sources and confluences. Pre-Christian Slavic peoples chose confluences as the sites for fortified triangular temples, where they practiced human sacrifice and other sacred rites. In Hinduism, the confluence of two sacred rivers often is a pilgrimage site for ritual bathing. In Pittsburgh, a number of adherents to Mayanism consider their city's confluence to be sacred.
Occasionally "confluence" is used to describe the meeting of tidal or other non-riverine bodies of water, such as two canals or a canal and a lake. A one-mile (1.6 km) portion of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans accommodates the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal; therefore those three waterways are confluent there.
The term confluence also applies to the merger of the flow of two glaciers.