Evolution of an Anthropocene Delta: Understanding the Interplay of Natural and Anthropogenic Forces That Shaped the Brazos River Subaqueous Delta, USA

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Joseph A Carlin, California State University Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, United States and Timothy Dellapenna, Texas A & M University at Galveston, Galveston, TX, United States
Deltas are unique environments that are rich in natural resources and human populations. As a result, human activities directly to the delta and indirectly to the watershed in the Anthropocene have led to changes within the deltaic system as a response to these natural and anthropogenic forces. Understanding the response of deltas to these new forcings will be critical to assess the vulnerability of deltas to global climate change and expanding human populations. The Brazos River Delta, located in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, served as an ideal study area to investigate the effect of human activities on a delta. Historical alterations to the system include agricultural activity, jetty construction, an engineered mouth diversion, and reservoir construction throughout the early and mid 20th Century. Three subaerial deltaic growth phases were identified based on historic shoreline configurations, and combined with high-resolution geophysical data (swath bathymetry, side scan sonar, CHIRP subbottom profiling) from the subaqueous delta to investigate the subaqueous delta changes over time. Evidence from these alternating progradational and retrogradational periods are preserved within the subaqueous delta. The data showed that as the growth of the subaerial delta changed over time, the subaqueous clinoform was subjected to regions of progradation or abandonment. The abandoned clinoform sections were characterized by a thinning modern clinoform sequence downslope from an erosional scarp. High side scan sonar backscatter features are believed to distinguish exposed erosional surfaces throughout the subaqueous delta demarcating the abandoned sections at the seabed. Prograding clinoform areas lack these high backscatter features. In these areas the modern clinoform was relatively thicker and does not exhibit the upslope erosional scarps. This noticeable asymmetry across the subaqueous delta shows that the Brazos Delta has migrated southwestward resulting from shifts in the balance between fluvial sediment supply and marine processes. These shifts were attributed to the anthropogenic activity within the system. This study shows that deltaic responses to human activity can be characterized by dramatic morphological and sedimentological changes that can occur on decadal time scales.