The pristine nature of the Orinoco Delta of eastern Venezuela provides unique opportunities to study the geologic processes and environments of a major tropical delta. Remote-sensing images, shallow cores, and radiocarbon-dating of organic remains form the basis for describing deltaic environments and interpreting the Holocene history of the delta.
The Orinoco Delta can be subdivided into two major sectors. The southeast sector is dominated by the Rio Grande—the principal distributary—and complex networks of anastomosing fluvial and tidal channels. The abundance of siliciclastic deposits suggests that fluvial processes such as overbank flooding strongly influence this part of the delta. In contrast, the northwest sector is represented by few major distributaries, and overbank sedimentation is less widespread relative to the southeast sector. Peat is abundant and occurs in herbaceous and forested swamps that are individually up to 200 km2 in area. Northwest-directed littoral currents transport large volumes of suspended sediment and produce prominent mudcapes along the northwest coast.
Mapping of surface sediments, vegetation, and major landforms identified four principal geomorphic systems within the western delta plain: (1) distributary channels, (2) interdistributary flood basins, (3) fluvial-marine transitional environments, and (4) marine-influenced coastal environments. Coring and radiocarbon dating of deltaic deposits show that the northern delta shoreline has prograded 20–30 km during the late Holocene sea-level highstand. Progradation has been accomplished by a combination of distributary avulsion and mudcape progradation. This style of deltaic progradation differs markedly from other deltas such as the Mississippi where distributary avulsion leads to coastal land loss, rather than shoreline progradation. The key difference is that the Orinoco Delta coastal zone receives prodigious amounts of sediment from northwest-moving littoral currents that transport sediment from as far away as the Amazon system (∼1600 km).
Late Holocene progradation of the delta has decreased delta-plain gradients, increased water levels, and minimized overbank flooding and siliciclastic sedimentation in the northwest sector. These conditions, coupled with large amounts of direct precipitation, have led to widespread peat accumulation in interdistributary basins. Because peat-forming environments cover up to 5000 km2 of the delta plain, the Orinoco may be an excellent analogue for interpreting ancient deltaic peat deposits.