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Attrition is a form of coastal or river erosion, when the bed load is eroded by itself and the bed. As rocks are transported downstream along a riverbed, the regular impacts between the grains themselves and between the grains and the bed cause them to be broken up into smaller fragments. This process also makes them rounder and smoother. Attrition can also occur in glaciated regions, where it is caused by the movement of ice with embedded boulders over surface sediments.
Pebbles are more affected by attrition further upstream, as the rivers' velocity tends to be higher, and therefore its competence (ability to carry sediment) is increased. This means that the load rubs against itself more and with more force when suspended in the river, thus increasing erosion by attrition, though there is a point after transport over a certain distance that pebbles reach a size that is relatively immune to further attrition. Grain-size distribution of sediments produced by attrition will also be controlled by the lithology of the rock from which they are derived.
The effects of attrition can be mistaken for the effects of sorting, in which the grain size of sediments is affected by sediment transport mechanisms e.g. suspension vs. bed load. This affects pebble beaches the most as the pebbles smash into each other, which causes them to smooth.
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- Bird, Eric C F, Lateral grading of beach sediments; a commentary, Journal of Coastal Research, vol.12, no.3, pp. 774–785, 1996
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