This is the second in a series of three introductory posts focused on some of the basics of deltaic physical environments. Last time, I looked at what defines a river delta as well as the timing of coastal delta formation globally around 7000-8000 years ago.
Natural levee and backswamp
A key thing to remember about deltaic landscapes is that the rivers running through them are creating, rather than eroding, land. I know I probably sound like a broken record on that front, but it’s also easy to overlook some of its implications. When we think of a typical riparian landscape, I think we often imagine a river valley, in which the highest ground is furthest from the river.
Because of the way rivers deposit sediments in deltas, however, the highest ground is actually closest to the river. During seasonal flooding in these landscapes, sediment-laden water rises above the riverbank. As it spreads over the floodplain, that water suddenly slows, allowing particles of suspended sediment to settle and build on the landscape.
Since the heaviest (and therefore largest) particles settle first, the high ground in river deltas always forms closest to the river. This embankment is called the natural levee. The further one gets from the main channel of the river, the smaller the particles of sediment that accumulate. The relatively narrow strip of high ground that constitutes the natural levee, then, begins to slope back down until it becomes a low wetland known in Louisiana as “backswamp.”
So, while deltas are typically very flat places, what little elevation there is usually hugs the river. That topography is particularly visible in the patterns of historical settlement in the Mississippi River delta.
While levees, drainage projects, and other extensive alterations to the landscape have allowed people to build homes and expand urban areas into what was once swampy low ground, places like New Orleans first emerged on the natural levee immediately along the river.
But where does all this sediment come from?
River deltas aren’t building new land and high ground from sediment plucked out of thin air. This material all comes from somewhere. And the way to figure out that “somewhere” is to look at a map of a river’s watershed. In the case of the Mississippi, you’ll notice that its waters are supplied by streams and rivers from as far west as the Rockies and as far east as the Appalachians.
If we think about the distinction between river valleys and river deltas as being one of eroding versus accreting landscapes, we can start to imagine that large river systems are massive sediment redistribution programs. Rain and snowmelt falling higher up in the watershed carry weathered rocks and soils from across the continent down to the mouth of the Mississippi. There, deposited as sediment, these fragments of distant landscapes build the delta. In a way, then, Deltas are the means by which ancient mountains get transformed into new shorelines.
But humans have also radically interfered with that sediment redistribution process in deltas all over the world and the Mississippi River delta is no exception. These days, most sediments are either trapped behind dams throughout the watershed or prevented from spreading over the landscape by the levees lining the river. Land-building in the Mississippi’s deltaic plain has, except in a few locations, practically ceased.
Campanella, Richard. Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. Lafayette, LA: University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2008. Also be sure to check out Campanella’s website at http://richcampanella.com/.
Gupta, Avijit (ed.). Large Rivers: Geomorphology and Management. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.
Meade, Robert (ed.). Contaminants in the Mississippi River, 1987-92. Reston, VA: US Geological Survey, Circular 1133, 1995.