River deltas, low-lying landforms that host high concentrations of human population and ecosystem services, face a new, and mostly unknown, future over the coming decades and centuries. Even as some deltas experience decreased sediment supply from damming, others will see increased sediment discharge from land-use changes. There are proposals to actively use riverine sediment supply to build new land and counteract delta loss. We present a novel approach to understanding the morphology of deltas by quantifying the balance between river inputs and the largely overlooked ability of waves to spread sediments along the coast. Defining a fluvial dominance ratio—river sediment input versus the potential maximum alongshore sediment transport away from the delta mouth—allows a quantitative assessment of this sediment transport balance. For a series of deltas on Java, Indonesia, that exhibit a large range of sediment loads but have a homogeneous drainage lithology and wave climate, and for more eclectic global examples, shoreline deflection increases along with this fluvial dominance ratio. The fluvial dominance ratio also predicts the observed transition from cuspate, wave-dominated deltas to fluvially dominated deltas with protruding, crenulated shorelines. Not only does this approach provide a more quantitative foundation for paleoenvironmental reconstructions and delta management, perhaps more importantly, this simple metric of fluvial dominance has a predictive application in determining potential morphology of deltas created by engineered sediment diversions.

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