Gravity-flow processes and deposits in a tidally dominated coastal environment

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 11:50 AM
Emily Eidam, Andrea S Ogston and Charles A Nittrouer, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States
Small mountainous rivers (SMRs) are characterized by episodic sediment delivery to marine environments, and have been recognized as a source of sediment gravity flows along storm-dominated coasts. These important modes of cross-shelf sediment transport are largely dependent on suspended-sediment concentration (SSC), bottom slope, and energy supplied by waves and currents. The mechanics and deposits of gravity flows are relatively unstudied on tidally dominated coasts receiving episodic SMR sediment discharge. Data collected during and after a March 2014 sediment delivery event from the small mountainous Elwha River (WA, USA) demonstrates the challenges of forming and preserving gravity-flow deposits in a persistently energetic tidal system. The river discharges to a narrow strait; near the river mouth, maximum boundary-layer tidal currents (50 cm above bed) reach 80–100 cm/s during spring tides and 30–60 cm/s during neap tides. Since 2011, the deconstruction of two dams has generated fluvial SSCs from 3 g/L to >9 g/L (max. monitoring value) during rainstorms and freshets. Instruments stationed near the river mouth since 2011 have shown that tidal currents advect this fine-grained sediment for days to weeks after delivery, and ultimately disperse it away from the river mouth. In March 2014, fluvial SSC reached ≥9 g/L during the largest river discharge since dam removal began. One day later, boundary-layer SSCs reached 2 g/L and 1 g/L at 23 and 102 cmab, respectively, and 5–8 days later, the bed under the instrument system aggraded by ~30 cm. Currents subsequently eroded the deposit, and within 3 weeks the bed elevation returned to its pre-event level. This is consistent with evidence of little to no grain-size change of the sand/gravel seabed in 10-60 m water depth up to 5 km from the river mouth since the dam removal began. To date, the only measurable accumulation of new sediment is in an embayment adjacent to the river mouth where currents weaken. These observations highlight the complexities of preserving fine-grained gravity-flow deposits in tidally dominated environments, where strong currents persistently transport them. On geologic time scales, marine sedimentary records of terrestrial events like floods and landslides may be sparse or absent on seabeds where tidal currents are strong.