Biogeomorphic controls on sedimentation and substrate on a vegetated tidal freshwater delta in upper Chesapeake Bay
Classic geomorphic theory on the dynamics of delta evolution posits a purely physical mechanism for spatial and temporal patterns of sediment accumulation over decades to centuries. Meanwhile, intertidal marsh vegetation that grows on deltas is well known to influence short-term fluid mechanics and sediment transport. This dichotomy points toward a large gap in the understanding of the role of vegetation in delta evolution as a function of spatial and temporal scale. In the research reported here, substrate characteristics and seasonal sedimentation rates in a tidal freshwater delta at the head of a Chesapeake Bay tributary were studied to assess the existence and extent of physical-ecological interactions on a delta over the seasonal to interannual time scale. Both vegetation data and sediment variables showed significant spatial variations at this time scale. When multiple regression analysis was used to compare vegetated versus nonvegetated conditions on the studied delta, 84% of the spatial variation in sedimentation with vegetation was explained by plant association and distance to the nearest distributary channel. In contrast, only 33% of the spatial variation in sedimentation could be explained when no vegetation was present, and in that case, the dominant variable was distance to the subtidal front. Spatial variability in organic content was less sensitive to vegetation and strongly influenced by the distance to the subtidal front. Substrate grain size parameters were explained by distance to the subtidal front and to the nearest distributary channel. This research demonstrates that sediment sequestration, and thus delta evolution, is highly predictable at the habitat scale and is driven by a strong interplay between abiotic and biotic variables.