Research ArticleEARTH SCIENCES

Experimental river delta size set by multiple floods and backwater hydrodynamics

Science Advances  20 May 2016:
Vol. 2, no. 5, e1501768
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501768

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River deltas worldwide are currently under threat of drowning and destruction by sea-level rise, subsidence, and oceanic storms, highlighting the need to quantify their growth processes. Deltas are built through construction of sediment lobes, and emerging theories suggest that the size of delta lobes scales with backwater hydrodynamics, but these ideas are difficult to test on natural deltas that evolve slowly. We show results of the first laboratory delta built through successive deposition of lobes that maintain a constant size. We show that the characteristic size of delta lobes emerges because of a preferential avulsion node—the location where the river course periodically and abruptly shifts—that remains fixed spatially relative to the prograding shoreline. The preferential avulsion node in our experiments is a consequence of multiple river floods and Froude-subcritical flows that produce persistent nonuniform flows and a peak in net channel deposition within the backwater zone of the coastal river. In contrast, experimental deltas without multiple floods produce flows with uniform velocities and delta lobes that lack a characteristic size. Results have broad applications to sustainable management of deltas and for decoding their stratigraphic record on Earth and Mars.

  • Avulsions
  • flood variability
  • delta size
  • sedimentary record
  • backwater

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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