Articles | Volume 5, issue 4
Research article
02 Nov 2017
Research article |  | 02 Nov 2017

Late Holocene evolution of a coupled, mud-dominated delta plain–chenier plain system, coastal Louisiana, USA

Marc P. Hijma, Zhixiong Shen, Torbjörn E. Törnqvist, and Barbara Mauz

Abstract. Major deltas and their adjacent coastal plains are commonly linked by means of coast-parallel fluxes of water, sediment, and nutrients. Observations of the evolution of these interlinked systems over centennial to millennial timescales are essential to understand the interaction between point sources of sediment discharge (i.e. deltaic distributaries) and adjacent coastal plains across large spatial (i.e. hundreds of kilometres) scales. This information is needed to constrain future generations of numerical models to predict coastal evolution in relation to climate change and other human activities. Here we examine the coastal plain (Chenier Plain, CP) adjacent to the Mississippi River delta, one of the world's largest deltas. We use a refined chronology based on 22 new optically stimulated luminescence and 22 new radiocarbon ages to test the hypothesis that cyclic Mississippi subdelta shifting has influenced the evolution of the adjacent CP. We show that over the past 3 kyr, accumulation rates in the CP were generally 0–1 Mt yr−1. However, between 1.2 and 0.5 ka, when the Mississippi River shifted to a position more proximal to the CP, these rates increased to 2.9 ±1.1 Mt yr−1 or 0.5–1.5 % of the total sediment load of the Mississippi River. We conclude that CP evolution during the past 3 kyr was partly a direct consequence of shifting subdeltas, in addition to changing regional sediment sources and modest rates of relative sea-level (RSL) rise. The RSL history of the CP during this time period was constrained by new limiting data points from the base of overwash deposits associated with the cheniers.

These findings have implications for Mississippi River sediment diversions that are currently being planned to restore portions of this vulnerable coast. Only if such diversions are located in the western portion of the Mississippi Delta plain could they potentially contribute to sustaining the CP shoreline. Our findings highlight the importance of a better understanding of mud-dominated shorelines that are often associated with major deltas, in light of the enormous investments in coastal management and restoration that will likely be made around the globe, now and especially later during this century.

Short summary
We show that in the last 3 kyr the evolution of the Chenier Plain, >200 km west of the Mississippi Delta, was influenced by changes in the position of the main river mouth, local sediment sources and sea-level rise. This information can be used to constrain future generations of numerical models to obtain more robust predictions of the effects of improved sediment management and accelerated rates of relative sea-level rise on the evolution of mud-dominated coastal environments worldwide.