Locked-in and living delta pathways in the Anthropocene

Delta systems are fundamental to the persistence of large human populations, food systems and ecosystem processes. Structural changes in natural and social components of deltas, emerging from past land-use changes, have led deltas to become locked-in loosing the ability to transform back into living deltas, and making them more at risk. 

Here, Maria J. Santos and Stefan C. Dekker propose a framework to assess whether deltas become locked-in by changes in natural or social infrastructure, by examining the dynamic coupling between population and land-use development over 300 years for 48 deltas globally. Together, they found that 46% of the deltas are defined as living, where population, irrigation, and cropland are correlated. Of the 54% locked-in deltas, 21% show changes in natural infrastructure to cropland (n = 6) or irrigation (n = 4), and 33% (n = 16) show changes in social infrastructure. Most locked-in deltas are in Europe but also in other continents due to decoupled development of population and cropland. While, locked-in deltas due to changes in natural infrastructure have highest average risks, those with changes in social infrastructure and the living deltas have highest risks from future relative sea level rise. These results show that deltas have varying natural and social components derived from a 300 years historical perspective, which are not taken into account in risk assessments for global deltas.

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