Global-scale human impact on delta morphology has led to net land area gain

River deltas rank among the most economically and ecologically valuable environments on Earth. Even in the absence of sea-level rise, deltas are increasingly vulnerable to coastal hazards as declining sediment supply and climate change alter their sediment budget, affecting delta morphology and possibly leading to erosion. However, the relationship between deltaic sediment budgets, oceanographic forces of waves and tides, and delta morphology has remained poorly quantified. 

In this research work, J. H. Nienhuis and colleagues show how the morphology of about 11,000 coastal deltas worldwide, ranging from small bayhead deltas to mega-deltas, has been affected by river damming and deforestation. They have introduced a model that shows that present-day delta morphology varies across a continuum between wave (about 80 per cent), tide (around 10 per cent) and river (about 10 per cent) dominance, but that most large deltas are tide- and river-dominated. Over the past 30 years, despite sea-level rise, deltas globally have experienced a net land gain of 54 ± 12 square kilometres per year (2 standard deviations), with the largest 1 per cent of deltas being responsible for 30 per cent of all net land area gains. Humans are a considerable driver of these net land gains—25 per cent of delta growth can be attributed to deforestation-induced increases in fluvial sediment supply. Yet for nearly 1,000 deltas, river damming has resulted in a severe (more than 50 per cent) reduction in anthropogenic sediment flux, forcing a collective loss of 12 ± 3.5 square kilometres per year (2 standard deviations) of deltaic land. 

Not all deltas lose land in response to river damming: deltas transitioning towards tide dominance are currently gaining land, probably through channel infilling. With expected accelerated sea-level rise, however, recent land gains are unlikely to be sustained throughout the twenty-first century. Understanding the redistribution of sediments by waves and tides will be critical for successfully predicting human-driven change to deltas, both locally and globally.

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