The Holocene Mississippi Delta System consists of six cyclic deltaic packages. Associated peat deposits are planar and eutrophic, and accumulate in areas abandoned by deltaic sedimentation. Peats that formed in large-scale interlobe basins are the subject of this paper. True peats (>75% organic matter) average 81.7% organic matter on a dry-weight basis. Controls on quality and lateral distribution of peat deposits are: botanical parent material, the balance between subsidence and accretion rates, detrital clastic influx and marine inundation. Botanical parent material, inferred from 13C signatures and microtome sections, is always freshwater, originating either in forested swamps, or under herbaceous (floating) mats. Sphagnum spp. is essentially absent.
In order for peat to accumulate, rates of accretion and subsidence must balance. Long-term subsidence rates in the study area increase from about 0.10 to 0.30 cm a-1 over a distance of 40 km from upper to lower delta plain. Subsurface accretion rates for true peats at a depth of 2-3 m, however, average about 0.05 cm a-1. Renewed coarse detrital clastic influx terminates peat accumulation. The largest quantities of true peat are found together with relatively large amounts of organic-poor clastic sediments (mostly clays).
Delta lobe abandonment and consequent coastal erosion causes salt water intrusion into freshwater environments. Resulting saline marsh sediments have maximum organic matter contents of 35%. In a transgressive setting, these may overlie older high-quality (low-ash) freshwater peats. Leaching experiments reveal the presence of water-soluble salts in both transgressed and fresh peats. Leaching reduces ash values by 1/5 to 1/3, suggesting that such losses may occur during early diagenesis. It is possible that some commercial coal seams originated in analogous interlobe environments, where leaching and possibly silica mobilization reduced the originally high ash contents to acceptable levels.