Control of Delta Avulsion by Downstream Sediment Sinks

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27 Scopus citations


Understanding how fluxes are partitioned at delta bifurcations is critical for predicting patterns of land loss and gain in deltas worldwide. Although the dynamics of river deltas are influenced from both upstream and downstream, previous studies of bifurcations have focused on upstream controls. Using a quasi-1-D bifurcation model, we show that flow switching in bifurcations is strongly influenced by downstream sediment sinks. We find that coupling between upstream and downstream feedbacks can lead to oscillations in water and sediment flux partitioning. The frequency and initial rate of growth/decay of the oscillations depend on both upstream and downstream conditions, with dimensionless bifurcate length and bypass fraction emerging as key downstream parameters. With a strong offshore sink, causing bypass in the bifurcate branches, we find that bifurcation dynamics become “frozen”; that is, the bifurcation settles on a permanent discharge ratio. In contrast, under depositional conditions, we identify three dynamical regimes: symmetric; soft avulsion, where both branches remain open but the dominant branch switches; and full avulsion. Finally, we show that differential subsidence alters these regimes, with the difference in average sediment supply to each branch exactly compensating for the difference in accommodation generation. Additionally, the model predicts that bifurcations with shorter branches are less asymmetric than bifurcations with longer branches, all else equal, providing a possible explanation for the difference between backwater length distributaries, which tend to be avulsive, and relatively stable mouth-bar-scale networks. We conclude that bifurcations are sensitive both quantitatively and qualitatively to downstream sinks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)142-166
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant 00039202. We also acknowledge funding from the SAFL Industrial Consortium for Experimental Stratigraphy. We grate fully acknowledge the Editor Giovanni Coco, Associate Editor A. J. F. Hoitink, Erik Mosselman, Doug Edmonds, and an anonymous reviewer for insightful comments which greatly improved this manuscript. The Matlab code for the model is available for download at Model:Bifurcation.

Publisher Copyright:
©2017. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • avulsion
  • bifurcation
  • bypass
  • delta
  • downstream
  • sink


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