Linking the historic 2011 Mississippi River flood to coastal wetland sedimentation


Wetlands in the Mississippi River deltaic plain are deteriorating1 in part because levees and control structures starve them of sediment2,3,4. In spring 2011 a record-breaking flood brought discharge on the lower Mississippi River to dangerous levels, forcing managers to divert up to 3,500 m3 s−1 of water to the Atchafalaya River Basin5. Here we use field-calibrated satellite data to quantify differences in inundation and sediment-plume patterns between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River. We assess the impact of these extreme outflows on wetland sedimentation, and use in situ data collected during the historic flood to characterize the Mississippi plume’s hydrodynamics and suspended sediment. We show that a focused, high-momentum jet emerged from the leveed Mississippi, and delivered sediment far offshore. In contrast, the plume from the Atchafalaya was more diffuse; diverted water inundated a large area, and sediment was trapped within the coastal current. The largest sedimentation, of up to several centimetres, occurred in the Atchafalaya Basin despite the larger sediment load carried by the Mississippi. Sediment accumulation was lowest along the shoreline between the two river sources. We conclude that river-mouth hydrodynamics and wetland sedimentation patterns are mechanistically linked, providing results that are relevant for plans to restore deltaic wetlands using artificial diversions2,3,4,6,7,8.

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Figure 1: Mississippi and Atchafalaya river plume patterns during the 2011 flood.
Figure 2: Spatial distribution of sediment during the 2011 flood.
Figure 3: SSC (mg l−1) and velocity (m s−1) profiles around the Mississippi River Birdsfoot Delta (1 June 2011).


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This work was supported by NSF-RAPID awards (EAR-1140269; OCE-1140307), a NOAA grant (NA11OAR4310101) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin Fellowship, and received further logistical support from the Luquillo Critical Zone Observatory (EAR-0722476). The CNR WORK was partially financially supported by the European Commission MyOcean-2 Project grant agreement (283367). We thank C. Vervaeke and A. Constantin for assistance with the helicopter survey and T. Touchet, M. Enache, M. Mills and T. Dura for assistance with sediment and diatom analyses. Field support from the crew of R/V Acadiana, C. Zhang, P. Dash, A. and A. Kolker is very much appreciated. We also thank V. Forneris for the collection of L-1A data products. Any use of trade, product or firm names is for descriptive purposes alone and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. This paper is a contribution to IGCP project 588 (Preparing for coastal change) and PALSEA.

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F.F. performed the satellite analysis, developed the potential vorticity theory for suspended sediment and coordinated the overall study. N.S.K. contributed to collection, analysis and presentation of the wetland sediment and diatom data. L.M. and C.B.L. contributed to the overall study and led the boat survey. B.P.H. contributed to the overall study approach and participated in data interpretation. M.D. and A.S. performed the hydrographic and suspended sediment data acquisition and analysis. K.L.M. contributed to the overall study approach and led the wetland sediment survey. R.S., S.C. and G.V. contributed to the processing of satellite data, subsequent analysis and presentation. C.L. contributed to the collection of river-mouth flow velocity profiles, subsequent data analysis and presentation. D.J.J. supervised the research, participated in data interpretation and led the writing of the main text. All authors contributed to the writing of this manuscript.

Correspondence to Douglas J. Jerolmack.

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Falcini, F., Khan, N., Macelloni, L. et al. Linking the historic 2011 Mississippi River flood to coastal wetland sedimentation. Nature Geosci 5, 803–807 (2012).

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