13.4 Landforms of Coastal Deposition

Modified from "Physical Geology" by Steven Earle*

Some coastal areas are dominated by erosion, an example being the Pacific coast of North America, while others are dominated by deposition, examples being the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of the United States. But on almost all coasts, both deposition and erosion are happening to varying degrees most of the time, although in different places. On deposition-dominant coasts, the coastal sediments are still being eroded from some areas and deposited in others.

On coasts that are dominated by depositional processes, most of the sediment being deposited typically comes from large rivers. Much of the sediment is immediately deposited at the mouth of the river, creating large fan-shaped deltas. An obvious example is where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans; another is the Yellow (Huang He) River in China (Figure 13.4.1).


Figure 13.4.1 The Yellow River delta in China, created by one of the most sediment-laden rivers on Earth (NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
The evolution of sandy depositional features on sea coasts is primarily influenced by waves and currents, especially longshore currents. As sediment is transported along a shore, either it is deposited on beaches, or it creates other depositional features. A spit, for example is an elongated sandy deposit that extends out into open water in the direction of a longshore current (Figure 13.4.2).
Figure 13.4.2 Farewell Spit, on the northern shore of New Zealand’s South Island (By NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team (NASA’s Earth Observatory) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
A spit that extends across a bay to the extent of closing, or almost closing it off, is known as a baymouth bar (Figure 13.4.3). Most bays have streams flowing into them, and since this water has to get out, it is rare that a baymouth bar will completely close the entrance to a bay.
Figure 13.4.3 Left: Illustration of a baymouth bar and tombolo (Steven Earle, “Physical Geology”). Right: A baymouth bar at the mouth of the Klamath River in northern California (Linda Tanner, https://www.flickr.com/photos/goingslo/5827465324, Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0).

Tombolos are common where islands are abundant, and they typically form where there is a wave shadow behind a nearshore island (Figure 13.4.4). This becomes an area with reduced energy, and so the longshore current slows and sediments accumulate. Eventually enough sediments accumulate to connect the island to the mainland with a tombolo (Figure 13.4.5).


Figure13.4.4 Formation of a tombolo. In the wind shadow of an island, there is little wave action, so the sediment moved by longshore transport gets deposited, eventually linking the island to the mainland (Steven Earle, “Physical Geology”).


Figure 13.4.5 A stack (with a wave-cut platform) connected to the mainland by a tombolo, Leboeuf Bay, Gabriola Island, British Columbia (Steven Earle, “Physical Geology”).

In areas where coastal sediments are abundant and coastal relief is low (because there has been little or no recent coastal uplift), it is common for barrier islands to form (Figure 13.4.6). Barrier islands are elongated islands composed of sand that form offshore from the mainland, potentially reaching several kilometers wide and hundreds of kilometers long. They are common along the U.S. Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, and along the U.S. Atlantic Coast from Florida to Massachusetts. The islands often form as the result of sediment moving offshore through river discharge, while wave action works to push the sediment back towards the shore. The resulting sediment buildup is then stretched into long barrier islands by longshore transport.


Figure 13.4.6 Assateague Island on the Maryland coast, U.S. This barrier island is about 60 km long and only 1 km to 2 km wide. The open Atlantic Ocean is to the right and the lagoon is to the left. This part of Assateague Island has recently been eroded by a tropical storm, which pushed massive amounts of sand into the lagoon. (http://soundwaves.usgs.gov/2014/04/images/DelmarvaAssateague_aerial_ViewCV.jpg).

Mature barrier islands contain a number of ecological zones. Beginning on the ocean side of the island there is a beach, consisting of the zones we discussed in section 13.1. Behind the beach lie dunes that are built up by sand transported by wind. The ocean side of the dunes are home to grasses and other plants which help stabilize the sand from erosion, and also help slow down the wind to allow sand to settle and accumulate. Beyond the dunes lies a more heavily vegetated barrier flat, covered by larger shrubs and trees that are tolerant to the high winds and salty conditions. As the land slopes down on the side of the island facing the mainland, the low-lying areas transition into a salt marsh or mud flat habitat, which is protected from wave action, but is influenced by tidal changes. The mud flats are colonized by grasses, which slow down the movement of water and lead to increased sediment deposition, building up the land in the marsh. Different species of grasses eventually dominate the different elevations of the salt marsh, depending on their tolerance for submersion in seawater. These salt marshes are very important habitats for many invertebrates, birds, and juvenile fish. Between the island and the mainland lies a lagoon, which usually contains brackish water from the mixing of fresh water runoff from the land and the seawater within a somewhat enclosed space. Barrier islands, although attractive locations for beach houses, are not permanent structures, and people should be wary of building on them. Over time, the erosion on the seaward side of the island, and the expansion of the marsh on the landward side, causes the island to slowly move towards the mainland, eventually closing off the lagoon. Maintaining dune grasses is one way to slow this movement, and as we will see in the next section, people have developed a number of other strategies to try to curtail the natural erosion of beaches.

*”Physical Geology” by Steven Earle used under a CC-BY 4.0 international license. Download this book for free at http://open.bccampus.ca



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