Evolution of Subaerial Coastal Fluvial Delta Island Topography into Multiple Stable States Under Influence of Vegetation and Stochastic Hydrology

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 1:40 PM
Kevan B Moffett, Brittany Claire Smith, Michael O'Connor and David C Mohrig, Department of Geological Sciences, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, United States
Coastal fluvial delta morphodynamics are prominently controlled by external fluvial sediment and water supplies; however, internal sediment-water-vegetation feedbacks are now being proposed as potentially equally significant in organizing and maintaining the progradation and aggradation of such systems. The time scales of fluvial and climate influences on these feedbacks, and of their responses, are also open questions. Historical remote sensing study of the Wax Lake Delta model system (Louisiana, USA) revealed trends in the evolution of the subaerial island surfaces from a non-systematic arrangement of elevations to a discrete set of levees and intra-island platforms with distinct vegetation types, designated as high marsh, low marsh, and mudflat habitat. We propose that this elevation zonation is consistent with multiple stable state theory, e.g. as applied to tidal salt marsh systems but not previously to deltas. According to zonally-distributed sediment core analyses, differentiation of island elevations was not due to organic matter accumulation as in salt marshes, but rather by differential mineral sediment accumulation with some organic contributions. Mineral sediment accumulation rates suggested that elevation growth was accelerating or holding steady over time, at least to date in this young delta, in contrast to theory suggesting rates should slow as elevation increases above mean water level. Hydrological analysis of island flooding suggested a prominent role of stochastic local storm events in raising island water levels and supplying mineral sediment to the subaerial island surfaces at short time scales; over longer time scales, the relative influences of local storms and inland/regional floods on the coupled sediment-water-vegetation system of the subaerial delta island surfaces remain the subject of ongoing study. These results help provide an empirical foundation for the next generation of coupled sediment-water-vegetation modeling and theory.