Why Do River Deltas Form?
A river winding its way down to the sea, from its mountain source, will inevitably choose the lowest land through which to flow. By the time the river approaches the sea the speed at which it is traveling will have decreased considerably, thus allowing the water to drop its load of sediment and other solids. These solid particles (alluvium), therefore, form the land pockets which are characteristic of the various branches of a river delta.
Owing to the slow pace of a river at this stage, it will wind its way round any elevated land points rather than go over them. Deltas are most likely to form where the sea, into which the river flows, is particularly calm for most of the year. Notable deltas in the world include the Mississippi (the largest) the Ganges, and the Nile. A delta is so called because it is the name of the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet whose shape it resembles.
River deltas form when river carrying sediment reaches either a body of water, such as a lake, ocean, or reservoir, another river that cannot remove the sediment quickly enough to stop delta formation, or an inland region where the water spreads out and deposits sediments. The tidal currents also cannot be too strong, as sediment would wash out into the water body faster than the river deposits it. The river must carry enough sediment to layer into deltas over time.
The river’s velocity decreases rapidly, causing it to deposit the majority, if not all, of its load. This alluvium builds up to form the river delta. When the flow enters the standing water, it is no longer confined to its channel and expands in width. This flow expansion results in a decrease in the flow velocity, which diminishes the ability of the flow to transport sediment.
As a result, sediment drops out of the flow and deposits. Over time, this single channel builds a deltaic lobe (such as the bird’s-foot of the Mississippi or Ural river deltas), pushing its mouth into the standing water. As the deltaic lobe advances, the gradient of the river channel becomes lower because the river channel is longer but has the same change in elevation.
As the slope of the river channel decreases, it becomes unstable for two reasons. First, gravity makes the water flow in the most direct course down slope. If the river breaches its natural levees (i.e., during a flood), it spills out into a new course with a shorter route to the ocean, thereby obtaining a more stable steeper slope.
Second, as its slope gets lower, the amount of shear stress on the bed decreases, which results in deposition of sediment within the channel and a rise in the channel bed relative to the floodplain. This makes it easier for the river to breach its levees and cut a new channel that enters the body of standing water at a steeper slope. Often when the channel does this, some of its flow remains in the abandoned channel. When these channel-switching events occur, a mature delta develops a distributary network.
Another way these distributary networks form is from deposition of mouth bars (mid-channel sand and/or gravel bars at the mouth of a river). When this mid-channel bar is deposited at the mouth of a river, the flow is routed around it. This results in additional deposition on the upstream end of the mouth-bar, which splits the river into two distributary channels. A good example of the result of this process is the Wax Lake Delta.
In both of these cases, depositional processes force redistribution of deposition from areas of high deposition to areas of low deposition. This results in the smoothing of the planform (or map-view) shape of the delta as the channels move across its surface and deposit sediment. Because the sediment is laid down in this fashion, the shape of these deltas approximates a fan.
The more often the flow changes course, the shape develops as closer to an ideal fan, because more rapid changes in channel position results in more uniform deposition of sediment on the delta front. The Mississippi and Ural River deltas, with their bird’s-feet, are examples of rivers that do not avulse often enough to form a symmetrical fan shape. Alluvial fan deltas, as seen by their name, avulse frequently and more closely approximate an ideal fan shape.
Most large river deltas discharge to intra-cratonic basins on the trailing edges of passive margins due to the majority of large rivers such as the Mississippi, Nile, Amazon, Ganges, Indus, and Yangtzee discharging along passive continental margins. This phenomenon is due to three big factors: topography, basin area, and basin elevation.
Topography along passive margins tend to be more gradual and widespread over a greater area enabling sediment to pile up and accumulate overtime to form large river deltas. Topography along active margins tend to be steeper and less widespread, which results in sediments not having the ability to pile up and accumulate due to the sediment traveling into a steep subduction trench rather than a shallow continental shelf.
There are many other smaller factors that could explain why the majority of river deltas form along passive margins rather than active margins. Along active margins, orogenic sequences cause tectonic activity to form over-steepened slopes, brecciated rocks, and volcanic activity resulting in delta formation to exist closer to the sediment source. When sediment does not travel far from the source, sediments that build up are coarser grained and more loosely consolidated, therefore making delta formation more difficult.
Tectonic activity on active margins causes the formation of river deltas to form closer to the sediment source which may affect channel avulsion, delta lobe switching, and auto cyclicity. Active margin river deltas tend to be much smaller and less abundant but may transport similar amounts of sediment. However, the sediment is never piled up in thick sequences due to the sediment traveling and depositing in deep subduction trenches.