Research ArticleENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES

Anatomy of Mississippi Delta growth and its implications for coastal restoration

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Science Advances  11 Apr 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 4, eaar4740
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar4740

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Abstract

The decline of several of the world’s largest deltas has spurred interest in expensive coastal restoration projects to make these economically and ecologically vital regions more sustainable. The success of these projects depends, in part, on our understanding of how delta plains evolve over time scales longer than the instrumental record. Building on a new set of optically stimulated luminescence ages, we demonstrate that a large portion (~10,000 km2) of the late Holocene river–dominated Mississippi Delta grew in a radially symmetric fashion for almost a millennium before abandonment. Sediment was dispersed by deltaic distributaries that formed by means of bifurcations at the coeval shoreline and remained active throughout the life span of this landform. Progradation rates (100 to 150 m/year) were surprisingly constant, producing 6 to 8 km2 of new land per year. This shows that robust rates of land building were sustained under preindustrial conditions. However, these rates are several times lower than rates of land loss over the past century, indicating that only a small portion of the Mississippi Delta may be sustainable in a future world with accelerated sea-level rise.

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