Natural and Human-Induced Variations in Accretion of the Roanoke Bay-head Delta

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Anna Jalowska, Brent A McKee and Antonio B Rodriguez, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, United States
Bay-head deltas (BHD), along with their adjacent floodplains serve as storage sites for lithogenic and organic material on millennial time scales and are biogeochemically active sites on daily to decadal time scales, contributing to global nutrient and carbon cycles. BHD host unique, highly diverse ecosystems such as the pristine swamp forest and hardwood bottomlands, of the Lower Roanoke River, NC. The global value of ecosystem services provided by wetlands within natural BHD is 2.5 to 2.8 mln 2007$/km2/year. BHD are very sensitive to changes in sedimentation and to changes in the rate of sea-level rise.

Core descriptions, 14C geo-chronologies and grain-size analyses show that the Roanoke BHD in North Carolina, USA experienced two episodes of retreat in late Holocene. The first event occurred around ca 3500 cal. yr. BC and is recognized as a prominent flooding surface separating the delta plain environment, below, from interdistributary bay, above. Across the flooding surface rates of sediment accumulation decreased from 1.8-3.3 mm/year to 0.5-0.6 mm/year. That change was associated with increased sediment accommodation. Sedimentation rates were keeping up with the low rates of sea-level rise until 1600-1700 AD. During that time, the delta started to rapidly accrete and the interdistributary bay was buried with delta plain and prodelta sediment. This occurred in response to the low rates of sea-level rise at that time (-0.1 to 0.47 mm/year) and the release of large quantities of sediments associated with the initiation of agriculture by European settlers in the drainage basin. The second episode of retreat was initiated during the 19th century when the rate of sea-level rose to 2.1 mm/year. During that time, agricultural practices improved, decreasing the amount of sediments delivered to the mouth of the Roanoke River. Under these conditions, the delta started backstepping. Analyses of historical maps, aerial photography, and side-scan sonar data show that between 1860 and 1954, 0.49 km2 of delta plain in the study area was lost. Following the construction of a series of dams, between 1947 and 1963 AD, the BHD decreased in size by another 0.12 km2. Furthermore, studies of bathymetry maps revealed changes in water depth from 0 to -2.25 m between 1860 and 2013, which indicate additional vertical erosion.