The kinematics of distributary channels on the Wax Lake Delta, coastal Louisiana, USA

Date

2013-05

Authors

Shaw, John Burnham

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Abstract

The Wax Lake Delta (WLD) is a sandy, modern river delta prograding rapidly into Atchafalaya Bay. This dissertation uses field data to improve the understanding of channel kinematics that dictate river delta geometry and stratigraphy, while providing a framework for coastal restoration efforts. The studies presented here show that the distributary channel network of the WLD is erosional. In the first study, analyses of the feeder channel to the WLD and the channel network within the sub-aerially emergent delta show that the channel bed has incised into the consolidated muds that act as bedrock. The large (>62%) fraction of bedrock exposure found in multi-beam surveys is related to the under-saturation of suspended sand measured during the flood of 2009. The second study concerns the delta front beyond the emergent delta Distributary channels extend 2 – 6 km into the delta front. Four bathymetric surveys of one bifurcating distributary channel – Gadwall Pass – show that the majority of bed aggradation occurs during floods, but the majority of channel extension of each bifurcate channel occurs during low river discharge. In the third study, field measurements of fluid flow during a tidal cycle indicate that tidal augmentation of during periods of low river discharge is responsible for channel extension during low river discharges. Flow direction measured from streaklines present in aerial photomosaics is combined with bathymetric evolution data to quantify spatial velocity changes on the delta front. These data show that flow spreading is insufficient to prevent acceleration at channel margins, providing an explanation for observed erosion. Flow divergence is limited on the delta front by the proximity of neighboring channels, even though they are separated by 10-30 channel widths. The associated convergence of flow in inter-distributary bays occurs along “drainage troughs”. These channel-forms collect flow that has been dispensed from distributary channel network. Finally, ambient currents in Atchafalaya Bay (0.06 – 0.2 m/s) caused by tides and the proximity to the neighboring Atchafalaya Delta appear to alter flow patterns on the delta foreset, and are responsible for channel curvature on the delta front.

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