River deltas are intricate landscapes with complex channel networks that self-organize to deliver water, sediment, and nutrients from the apex to the delta top and eventually to the coastal zone. The natural balance of material and energy fluxes, which maintains a stable hydrologic, geomorphologic, and ecological state of a river delta, is often disrupted by external perturbations causing topological and dynamical changes in the delta structure and function. A formal quantitative framework for studying delta channel network connectivity and transport dynamics and their response to change is lacking. Here we present such a framework based on spectral graph theory and demonstrate its value in computing delta's steady state fluxes and identifying upstream (contributing) and downstream (nourishment) areas and fluxes from any point in the network. We use this framework to construct vulnerability maps that quantify the relative change of sediment and water delivery to the shoreline outlets in response to possible perturbations in hundreds of upstream links. The framework is applied to the Wax Lake delta in the Louisiana coast of the U.S. and the Niger delta in West Africa. In a companion paper, we present a comprehensive suite of metrics that quantify topologic and dynamic complexity of delta channel networks and, via application to seven deltas in diverse environments, demonstrate their potential to reveal delta morphodynamics and relate to notions of vulnerability and robustness.
- graph theory