Dynamic Changes of the Holocene Mississippi River Delta Plain: The Delta Cycle

Harry H. Roberts

Abstract


Previous geologic research on Holocene Mississippi River deltaic deposits has verified that the present delta plain and associated nearshore barrier islands and submarine shoals are either direct or indirect products of cyclic delta-building events that have operated on a variety of temporal and spatial scales. A major depositional element of the modern delta plain is the delta complex, of which there are six: (1) Maringouin, (2) Teche, (3) St. Bernard, (4) Lafourche, (5) Balize, and (6) Atchafalaya. Major delta-building events have occurred at a frequency of one every 1- 2 kyr. Deposits associated with the six major delta complexes are fundamental constructional units of the delta plain, which collectively covers an area of - 30,000 km2. Sedimentary deposits associated with these delta-building events range in thickness from about 10 to 100 m. Their construction is modulated by stream capture, which develops a new delta complex by way of a new river course. Delta complexes may be comprised of one or more delta lobes. As a product of this delta switching, the depositional architecture of the delta plain consists of laterally offset and stacked delta lobes. Within delta lobes are subdeltas and even smaller crevasse splays. These smaller scale deltas sedimentologically and geomorphically mimic their larger delta lobe counterparts, but they are considerably thinner, cover less area, and have a shorter period of development an d abandonment. Subdeltas are usually < 10 m thick and may fill shallow bays that cover over 300 km2. They build and deteriorate on time-scales of 150-200 years. Crevasse-splays or overbank splays are < 5 m thick, cover only a few square kilometers, and are abandoned after several decades of active growth.

Each delta evolves through a rapid regressional phase as water and sediment are capture d from an antecedent river course. If highstand conditions persist long enough, deltas may prograde to the outer shelf to form wedges of deltaic sediment much thicker than their inner shelf counterparts. The delta-building process starts with the filling of interior lakes (lacustrine deltas), which is followed by bayhead delta-building at the coast, and finally by progradation across the marine shelf (shelf delta). Delta complexes and delta lobes, as well as their smaller counterparts, experience three phases of growth and abandonment: (1) rapid growth with increasing-to-stable discharge, (2) relative stability during initial stages of waning discharge, when sediment input balances the collective effects of subsidence, and (3) abandonment, followed by rapid subsidence-driven subaerial delta deterioration. In the rapid growth stage, formerly eroding-subsiding coastal environments experience delta plain accretion and coastal progradation from renewed sediment input. On the abandonment side of the cycle, marine processes overwhelm fluvial processes and rework the delta perimeter. Forced by the combined processes of subsidence, the delta surface undergoes progressive submergence. Transgressive sand bodies created by wave reworking of the delta evolve from headland beaches and spits, to barrier islands, and finally to submarine shoals as the abandonment phase is completed.

 


Keywords


Delta cycle; progradation; subsidence; shoreline change

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