Ichnology of Deltas: Organism Responses to the Dynamic Interplay of Rivers, Waves, Storms, and Tides
James A. MacEachern, Kerrie L. Bann, Janok P. Bhattacharya, Charles D. Howell, Jr., 2005. "Ichnology of Deltas: Organism Responses to the Dynamic Interplay of Rivers, Waves, Storms, and Tides", River Deltas–Concepts, Models, and Examples, Liviu Giosan, Janok P. Bhattacharya
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Analyses of deltaic facies successions highlight recurring ichnological patterns that reflect a variety of physicochemical stresses imposed upon infaunal organisms by the interaction of various delta-front processes. Analysis of numerous ancient deltaic deposits in Canada, the United States, Australia, and offshore Norway persistently show reductions in bioturbation intensity and impoverishment in ichnological diversity, compared to those of nondeltaic shorelines. Some facies locally demonstrate sporadic colonization and recolonization of substrates left denuded by episodic depositional conditions. Deltaic ichnological suites also locally display size reductions of ichnogenera and a paucity of suspension-feeding ethologies. Resulting trace-fossil suites are overwhelmingly dominated by deposit-feeding behaviors, even in sandy facies.
Such ichnological characteristics largely reflect increased sedimentation rates and heightened fluvial discharge, which serve to impede infaunal colonization. River-derived stresses are profound: salinity changes, hypopycnal-flow-induced water turbidity, distributary flood discharges with accompanying phytodetrital (comminuted plant debris) pulses, hyperpycnal-flow-induced sediment gravity flows, and fluid-mud deposition all conspire to produce the overall depauperate nature of the ichnological assemblage. Freshet-discharge events during river floods, accompanied by hyperpycnal conditions, may lead to the episodic introduction of reduced-salinity waters immediately above the sediment-water interface in delta-front and prodelta depositional settings. Such conditions may facilitate development of syneresis cracks and promote reductions in infaunal populations.
Wave energy generally buffers fluvial effects, by dispersing suspended sediment offshore and encouraging the thorough mixing of waters of contrasting salinity. High mud concentrations near the delta front damp wave energy, however, limiting its effectiveness in remediating the benthic ecosystem, particularly immediately following distributary flood discharges and storm events. In wave-dominated settings, strong alongshore drift also operates to extend river-derived stresses considerable distances downdrift from distributary mouths. Where asymmetric deltas are formed, markedly different ichnological characteristics are expressed on either side of distributary-channel mouths. Updrift settings typically retain classic shoreface assemblages, whereas downdrift environments commonly acquire markedly stressed suites. Storm energy may be effective in dispersing mud and mixing waters, but it also results in erosion and episodic sediment deposition. Concomitant precipitation induces river floods, returning river-derived stresses to the delta front. Tidal energy and its effects on the infaunal communities of deltas are poorly documented. Tidal flux may trap mud plumes against the delta front, elevating water turbidity. Pronounced mud flocculation coupled with increased settling velocity associated with tidal mixing also leads to rapid deposition of thick fluid muds, particularly in low-lying areas, hampering or precluding colonization. Tidal energy also leads to marked changes in energy and salinity near the sediment-water interface at several time scales.
Deltaic ichnological suites are characterized by structures of opportunistic trophic generalists, though mainly those of facies-crossing deposit feeders. High water turbidity, particularly near the sea floor, precludes most suspension-feeding behavior, and suppresses the development of the Skolithos ichnofacies, even in many proximal delta-front deposits. Ichnological characteristics record the dynamic interplay and relative importance of these different processes, both temporally and spatially, on delta systems.
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Deltas are amongst the most environmentally and economically important coastal sedimentary environments. Studies of deltas lag behind research in both fluvial and deep-water depositional systems, as well as more geomorphologically oriented land studies. This knowledge lag reflects both a reorientation of the petroleum industry in the last two decades toward deep-water systems, as well as the difficulty of working across the shoreline with the traditional tools used for oceanographic or land-based work. However, deltaic studies are experiencing a renewed focus, because of their global importance in environmental and other societal concerns. This volume stems from a special session: Deltas: Old and New, held at the Annual Geological Society of America conference in October 2002, that was convened to highlight these new directions in deltaic research.