Shorelines are the interface between the land and the oceans. Their characteristics vary depending on the balance of sediment supply and transport processes. When the sediment supply from rivers is large compared to the rate at which transport processes redistribute the sediment, deltas form, building out into the ocean. If sediment supply is low compared to the rate of sediment transport seaward of the shoreline, the shoreline erodes back. When sea level rises, river valleys can become flooded with marine water, creating estuaries. When sea level falls, rivers tend to erode downward into the previously coastal sediments.
The balance between tides and waves also affects the geometry of shorelines. Wave-dominated shorelines tend to have beaches, whereas tide-dominated shorelines tend to have broad marshy flats. Either can be erosional if the offshore transport of sediment is higher than the sediment supply or constructional if offshore transport is lower. They can shift back and forth through time if sediment supply or transport processes change. Thus, most shorelines are dynamic environments that vary significantly on human time scales.
Wave Influenced Shorelines
Waves have very specific sediment transport characteristics, with the highest energy flows near the breaker zone and lower flows both onshore and offshore. The onshore flows transport sediments to form beaches. The swash zone is the area that forms the primary beach. During storms, the waves are commonly higher, and, if sufficient sediment is available, they carry sediment farther up the beach, creating a berm. This gives the beach a characteristic slope up away from the shore, a crest, and then a slope downward. In some cases, the beach can extend off the coastline, creating a barrier bar or barrier island. A lagoon then forms between the beach and the main coastline. When there is a large sand supply, these barrier bars and islands can grow to be quite large. However, waves also transport sand off shore, going from the high energy breaker zone to the lower energy deep water. If the sand supply is low, more sand can get transported offshore than is delivered to the beaches. This causes beaches, barrier bars, and barrier islands to erode.
Tide Influenced Shorelines
Tidal currents flow on and off shore every day or twice a day. When tidal ranges are high, tidal currents can be strong, redistributing sediment either onshore or offshore. These tidal currents often become channelized, and they begin to act like rivers, with meanders, etc.
Constructional Shorelines: Deltas
Deltas form at the mouths of rivers that transport enough sediment to build outward. (Building outward is a key component of the definition of a delta. Rivers where the ocean or lake floods the river valley flow into estuaries.) Deltas require substantial accumulation of sediment, in contrast to estuaries which do not build outward. Sedimentary facies are similar to other depositional environments, but the association of subenvironments are recognizable as deltas. Some of the sub environments include: river facies with all the associated sub environments; shore line deposits including beaches, marshes/swamps, etc.; submarine shelf and slope facies, including storm deposits and turbidites; etc.
Deltas consist of the delta plane, delta slopes, and prodelta. Rivers flow through delta planes and slow when reaching water, producing a mouth bar. Grain size decreases with distance away from the river mouth.
Because deltas are sites of sediment building outward from the coast, they are progradational; the landward depositional environments move seaward over more marine/lacustrine deposits. Thus, delta sequences in the rock record start with deep water, marine, fine grained sediments and grade upward into shallower water, possible more freshwater, coarser grained sediments. This is one of the distinguishing aspects of deltas that let you define them in the sedimentary record. These changes in grain size and environment typically occur over 1’s to 100’s of meters in the rock record and include many beds.
Sediment Transport Type
All deltas (by definition) have their sediment transported to the delta by rivers. Thus, riverine deposits are always associated with them. In addition, depending on marine (or lacustrine) conditions, waves and tides can redistribute the riverine sediment changing the morphology and facies of deltas. There are three main end member categories of deltas when characterized by processes: 1) River dominated; 2) Wave influenced; and 3) Tide influenced.
River Dominated Deltas
River dominated deltas have very low wave energy and a very small tidal range. Delta top deposits are well developed and are very similar to meandering river deposits, including channel, levees and overbank deposits. Overbank areas are commonly heavily vegetated and result in peat and coal deposition. Channels build out into the ocean (or lake) on top of their mouth bars. This leads to a coarsening upwards of grain sizes within the mouth bars as well as a change from some marine processes to unidirectional river flow. Avulsion of the rivers is common due to low gradients on the delta plain. Lobes of the delta become abandoned creating a “bird’s foot delta”. Sheltered bays are common between the lobes, and are filled with overbank deposits from floods as well as marshy deposits. The Mississippi River Delta is a classic river dominated delta.
Wave Influenced Deltas
Waves redistribute the sediment deposited by the rivers. Progradation of channels is limited because mouth bars are reworked by waves into shore parallel sand bars and beaches. Spits of sand are also common. The waves sort the sediment better than rivers and, if the grains are not already well rounded, the waves will round them. The big differences for wave influenced deltas are that beach facies are abundant and channel fill and overbank facies are less common. The Niger River Delta is a wave influenced delta.
Tide Influenced Deltas
Tides rework sands into elongate bars perpendicular to shore (vs. waves). These bars are analogous to mouth bars, but they contain tidal sedimentary characteristics including bi-directional flow indicators and slack tide mud drapes. Overbank areas can include tidal flats. The Ganges-Bramhaputra delta in Bangladesh is a tide dominated delta.
Constructional Shorelines: Coastal Planes
Coastal planes are broad areas where there is sufficient sediment for the land to build seaward, but it is not localized at a single delta mouth. Examples of coastal planes include the Everglades area of Florida and the coast of the Carolinas.
Each of these processes creates distinctive features in stratigraphic columns.