Tidal controls on river delta morphology

Abstract

River delta degradation has been caused by extraction of natural resources, sediment retention by reservoirs, and sea-level rise. Despite global concerns about these issues, human activity in the world’s largest deltas intensifies. Harbour development, construction of flood defences, sand mining and land reclamation emerge as key contemporary factors that exert an impact on delta morphology. Tides interacting with river discharge can play a crucial role in the morphodynamic development of deltas under pressure. Emerging insights into tidal controls on river delta morphology suggest that—despite the active morphodynamics in tidal channels and mouth bar regions—tidal motion acts to stabilize delta morphology at the landscape scale under the condition that sediment import during low flows largely balances sediment export during high flows. Distributary channels subject to tides show lower migration rates and are less easily flooded by the river because of opposing non-linear interactions between river discharge and the tide. These interactions lead to flow changes within channels, and a more uniform distribution of discharge across channels. Sediment depletion and rigorous human interventions in deltas, including storm surge defence works, disrupt the dynamic morphological equilibrium and can lead to erosion and severe scour at the channel bed, even decades after an intervention.

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Figure 1: The river-dominated part in the planform of a delta can often readily be distinguished from the tide-dominated part.
Figure 2: Trifurcations in the planform of a mouth bar complex indicate a strong tidal control on delta morphology.
Figure 3: In a predefined modelling domain, subaqueous patterns of channels and shoals can be predicted.
Figure 4: Intertidal areas are generally elevated above the embanked hinterland, which is caused by deposition of marine sediment during high tide and storm surges.
Figure 5: The construction of a storm surge barrier may result in unexpected morphological developments.

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Acknowledgements

This study has been supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), project 1022/01966/ALW, and by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), project SPIN3-JRP-29. Z.B.W. received funding from the National Science Foundation in China (NSFC), project number 51320105005. We thank N. Leonardi (University of Liverpool) and L. Guo (East China Normal University) for making available the images we used to prepare Figs 2 and 3. We acknowledge Rijkswaterstaat for permission to publish the data shown in Fig. 5.

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Hoitink, A., Wang, Z., Vermeulen, B. et al. Tidal controls on river delta morphology. Nature Geosci 10, 637–645 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo3000

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