Abstract

Littoral cells along active tectonic margins receive large inputs of sand and gravel from coastal watersheds and commonly lose this sediment to submarine canyons. One hypothesis is that the majority of coarse (sand and gravel) river sediment discharge will be emplaced within and immediately “resupply” local littoral cells. A competing hypothesis is that the infrequent, large floods that supply the majority of littoral sediment may discharge water-sediment mixtures within negatively buoyant hyperpycnal plumes that transport sediment offshore of the littoral cell. Here we summarize pre- and post-flood surveys of two wave-dominated California (United States) river deltas during record to near-record floods to help evaluate these hypotheses: the 1982–1983 delta at the San Lorenzo River mouth and the 2005 delta at the Santa Clara River mouth. Flood sedimentation at both deltas resulted in several meters of aggradation and hundreds of meters of offshore displacement of isobaths. One substantial difference between these deltas was the thick (>2 m) aggradation of sand on the inner shelf of the Santa Clara River delta that contained substantial amounts (∼50%) of littoral-grade sediment. Once deposited on the inner shelf, only a fraction (∼20%) of this river sand was observed to migrate toward the beach over the following 5 yr. Furthermore, simple hypopycnal plume behavior could not explain deposition of this sand on the inner shelf. Thus, during an exceptional flood a substantial amount of littoral-grade sand was exported offshore of the littoral system at the Santa Clara River mouth—likely from hyperpycnal plume processes—and was deposited on the inner shelf.

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