Assessing the effect of sea-level change and human activities on a major delta on the Pacific coast of northern South America: The Patía River



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This paper presents the main physical and human-induced stresses that have shaped the recent evolution of the Patía River delta, the largest and best-developed delta on the western margin of South America. During the Holocene, the Patía Delta moved southward and the northern part became an estuarine system characterized by large extensions of mangrove ecosystems. However, a major human-induced water diversion, starting in 1972, diverted the Patía flow to the Sanguianga River, and shifted the active delta plain back to its former Holocene location. This discharge diversion has led to sediment starvation of the southern delta lobe and changed the northern estuarine system into an active delta plain. In addition, coastal areas of the Patía delta subsided as a result of a devastating tsunami in 1979. Morphological changes along the delta coast are evidenced by: (1) coastal retreat along the whole delta front during the period 1986-2001; (2) coastal retreat along the abandoned delta lobe for the period 2001-2008; 56% of the southern delta shoreline is retreating and only 4% of the coast shows signs of accretion; (3) progradation of the northern delta region during the period 2001-2008; the discharge diversion of the Patía River to the Sanquianga has apparently balanced the observed trends in coastal erosion and sea-level rise (5.1mmyr -1 for the period 1984-2006, after the 1979 tsunami); (4) formation of transgressive barrier islands with exposed peat soils in the surf zone; and (5) abandonment of former active distributaries in the southern delta plain with associated inlet closure. In the northern delta lobe, major geomorphic changes include: (1) distributary channel accretion by morphological processes such as sedimentation (also in crevasses), overbank flow, increasing width of levees, inter-distributary channel fill, and colonization of pioneer mangrove; (2) freshening conditions in the Sanguianga distributary channel, a hydrologic change that has shifted the upper estuarine region (salinity<1psu) downstream; and (3) changes in vegetation succession; approximately 30% of mangrove forests in the current delta apex have been replaced by freshwater vegetation. Overall, the recent evolution of the Patía has been controlled by the interplay of (1) high basin-wide sediment load; (2) low discharge variability (Q max/Q min); (3) spatial switch of delta distributaries related to tectonic movements and subsidence; (4) a relative sea-level rise of 5.1mmyr -1 after the occurrence of the 1979 tsunami; (5) episodes of sea-level rise associated with the ENSO cycle; and (6) human-induced discharge diversion. The information presented here is valuable evidence for understanding the role of extreme events versus 'normal' conditions in creating and shaping deltas. © 2012 Elsevier B.V.


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