The effect of grain size on river delta process and morphology
Delta morphology is traditionally explained by differences in fluvial energy and wave and tidal energy. However, deltas influenced by similar ratios of river to marine energy can display strikingly different morphologies. Other variables, such as grain size of the sediment load delivered to the delta, influence delta morphology, but these models are largely qualitative leaving many questions unanswered. To better understand how grain size modifies deltaic processes and morphologies I conducted 33 numerical modeling experiments and quantified the effects produced by different grain sizes. In these 33 runs I change the median (0.01 - 1 mm), standard deviation (0.1 - 3 φ), and skewness (-0.7 - 0.7) of the incoming grain-size distribution. The model setup includes a river carrying constant discharge entering a standing body of water devoid of tides, waves, and sea-level change. The results show that delta morphology undergoes a transition as median grain size and standard deviation increase while changing skewness has little effect. At small median grain size and standard deviation, deltas have elongate planform morphologies with sinuous shorelines characterized by shallow topset gradients ranging from 1 x 10-4 to 3 x 10-4, and by 1 - 8 stable active channels. At large median grain size and standard deviation, deltas transition to semi-circular planform morphologies with smooth shorelines characterized by steeper topset gradients ranging from 1 x 10-3 to 2 x 10-3, and by 14 - 16 mobile channels. The change in delta morphology can be morphodynamically linked to changes in grain size. As grain size increases delta morphology transitions from elongate to semi-circular because the average topset gradient increases. For a given set of flow conditions, larger grain sizes require a steeper topset gradient to mobilize and transport. The average topset gradient reaches a dynamic equilibrium through time. This requires that, per unit length of seaward progradation, deltas with steeper gradients have higher vertical sedimentation rates. Higher sedimentation rates, in turn, perch the channel above the surrounding floodplain (so-called `super-elevation'), resulting in unstable channels that frequently avulse and create periods of overbank flow. The overbank flow is more erosive because the steeper gradient causes higher shear stresses on the floodplain, which creates more channels. More channels reduce the average water and sediment discharge at a given channel mouth, which creates time scales for mouth bar formation in coarse-grained deltas that are longer than the avulsion time scale. This effectively suppresses the process of bifurcation around river mouth bars in coarse-grained deltas, which in turn creates semi-circular morphologies with smooth shorelines as channels avulse across the topset. On the other hand, the finest-grained (i.e. mud) deltas have low topset gradients and fewer channels. The high water and sediment discharge per channel, coupled with the slow settling velocity of mud, advects the sediment far from channel mouths, which in turn creates mouth bar growth and avulsion time scales that are longer than the delta life. This creates an elongate delta as stable channels prograde basinward. Deltas with intermediate grain sizes have nearly equal avulsion and bifurcation time scales, creating roughly semi-circular shapes but with significant shoreline roughness where mouth bars form.