River delta

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The Ebro River delta at the Mediterranean Sea. EbroRiverDelta ISS009-E-09985.jpg
The Ebro River delta at the Mediterranean Sea.
Sacramento-San Joaquin (California) Delta at flood stage, early March 2009. Sacramento Delta at flood stage, 2009.jpg
Sacramento–San Joaquin (California) Delta at flood stage, early March 2009.

A river delta is a landform shaped like a triangle, created by deposition of sediment that is carried by a river as the flow leaves its mouth and enters slower-moving or stagnant water. [1] [2] This occurs where a river enters an ocean, sea, estuary, lake, reservoir, or (more rarely) another river that cannot carry away the supplied sediment. It is so named because its triangle shape, resembles the Greek letter Delta. The size and shape of a delta is controlled by the balance between watershed processes that supply sediment, and receiving basin processes that redistribute, sequester, and export that sediment. [3] [4] The size, geometry, and location of the receiving basin also plays an important role in delta evolution.


River deltas are important in human civilization, as they are major agricultural production centers and population centers. [5] They can provide coastline defense and can impact drinking water supply. [6] They are also ecologically important, with different species' assemblages depending on their landscape position.


A river delta is so named because the shape of the Nile Delta approximates the triangular uppercase Greek letter delta. The triangular shape of the Nile Delta was known to audiences of classical Athenian drama; the tragedy Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus refers to it as the "triangular Nilotic land", though not as a "delta". [7] Herodotus's description of Egypt in his Histories mentions the Delta fourteen times, as "the Delta, as it is called by the Ionians", including describing the outflow of silt into the sea and the convexly curved seaward side of the triangle. [7] Despite making comparisons to other river-systems' deltas, Herodotus did not describe them as "deltas". [7] The Greek historian Polybius likened the land between the Rhône and Isère rivers to the Nile Delta, referring to both as islands, but did not apply the word delta. [7] According to the Roman geographer Strabo, the Cynic philosopher Onesicritus of Astypalaea, who accompanied Alexander the Great's conquests in India, reported that Patalene (the delta of the Indus River) was "a delta". [7] (Koinē Greek : καλεῖ δὲ τὴν νῆσον δέλτα, romanized: kalei de tēn nēson délta, lit. 'he calls the island a delta'). [7] The Roman author Arrian's Indica states that "the delta of the land of the Indians is made by the Indus river no less than is the case with that of Egypt". [7]

As a generic term for the landform at the mouth of river, the word delta is first attested in the English-speaking world in the late 18th century, in the work of Edward Gibbon. [8]


A delta forms where a river meets a lake Delta Formation.svg
A delta forms where a river meets a lake

River deltas form when a river carrying sediment reaches a body of water, such as a lake, ocean, or a reservoir. 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 is deposited as alluvium, which builds up to form the river delta. [10] [11] 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 (see slope).

As the gradient of the river channel decreases, the amount of shear stress on the bed decreases, which results in the deposition of sediment within the channel and a rise in the channel bed relative to the floodplain. This destabilizes the river channel. If the river breaches its natural levees (such as during a flood), it spills out into a new course with a shorter route to the ocean, thereby obtaining a steeper, more stable gradient. [12] Typically, when the river switches channels in this manner, some of its flow remains in the abandoned channel. Repeated channel-switching events build up a mature delta with a distributary network.

Another way these distributary networks form is from the 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. [13] [14] 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 result 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, Yangtze, and Yellow River discharging along passive continental margins. [15] This phenomenon is due mainly to three factors: topography, basin area, and basin elevation. [15] Topography along passive margins tend to be more gradual and widespread over a greater area enabling sediment to pile up and accumulate over time 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 lesser 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. [15] [16] 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. [16] Active margin river deltas tend to be much smaller and less abundant but may transport similar amounts of sediment. [15] However, the sediment is never piled up in thick sequences due to the sediment traveling and depositing in deep subduction trenches. [15]


Lower Mississippi River land loss over time Lower Mississippi River landloss over time.jpg
Lower Mississippi River land loss over time
Delta lobe switching in the Mississippi Delta,  4600 yrs BP,  3500 yrs BP,  2800 yrs BP,  1000 yrs BP,  300 yrs BP,  500 yrs BP,  current Mississippi Delta Lobes.jpg
Delta lobe switching in the Mississippi Delta, 4600 yrs BP, 3500 yrs BP, 2800 yrs BP, 1000 yrs BP, 300 yrs BP, 500 yrs BP, current

Deltas are typically classified according to the main control on deposition, which is a combination of river, wave, and tidal processes, [17] [18] depending on the strength of each. [19] The other two factors that play a major role are landscape position and the grain size distribution of the source sediment entering the delta from the river. [20]

Fluvial-dominated deltas

Fluvial-dominated deltas are found in areas of low tidal range and low wave energy. [21] Where the river water is nearly equal in density to the basin water, the delta is characterized by homopycnal flow, in which the river water rapidly mixes with basin water and abruptly dumps most of its sediment load. Where the river water has higher density than basin water, typically from a heavy load of sediment, the delta is characterized by hypercynal flow in which the river water hugs the basin bottom as a density current that deposits its sediments as turbidites. When the river water is less dense than the basin water, as is typical of river deltas on an ocean coastline, the delta is characterized by hypopycnal flow in which the river water is slow to mix with the denser basin water and spreads out as a surface fan. This allows fine sediments to be carried a considerable distance before settling out of suspension. Beds in a hypocynal delta dip at a very shallow angle, around 1 degree. [21]

Fluvial-dominated deltas are further distinguished by the relative importance of the inertia of rapidly flowing water, the importance of turbulent bed friction beyond the river mouth, and buoyancy. Outflow dominated by inertia tend to form Gilbert type deltas. Outflow dominated by turbulent friction is prone to channel bifurcation, while buoyancy-dominated outflow produces long distributaries with narrow subaqueous natural levees and few channel bifurcations. [22]

The modern Mississippi River delta is a good example of a fluvial-dominated delta whose outflow is buoyancy-dominated. Channel abandonment has been frequent, with seven distinct channels active over the last 5000 years. Other fluvial-dominated deltas include the Mackenzie delta and the Alta delta. [13]

Gilbert deltas

A Gilbert delta (named after Grove Karl Gilbert) is a type of fluvial-dominated [23] delta formed from coarse sediments, as opposed to gently-sloping muddy deltas such as that of the Mississippi. For example, a mountain river depositing sediment into a freshwater lake would form this kind of delta. [24] [25] It is commonly a result of homopycnal flow. [21] Such deltas are characterized by a tripartite structure of topset, foreset, and bottomset beds. River water entering the lake rapidly deposits its coarser sediments on the submerged face of the delta, forming steeping dipping foreset beds. The finer sediments are deposited on the lake bottom beyond this steep slope as more gently dipping bottomset beds. Behind the delta front, braided channels deposit the gently dipping beds of the topset on the delta plain. [26] [27]

While some authors describe both lacustrine and marine locations of Gilbert deltas, [24] others note that their formation is more characteristic of the freshwater lakes, where it is easier for the river water to mix with the lakewater faster (as opposed to the case of a river falling into the sea or a salt lake, where less dense fresh water brought by the river stays on top longer). [28] Gilbert himself first described this type of delta on Lake Bonneville in 1885. [28] Elsewhere, similar structures occur, for example, at the mouths of several creeks that flow into Okanagan Lake in British Columbia and forming prominent peninsulas at Naramata, Summerland, and Peachland.

Wave-dominated deltas

In wave dominated deltas, wave-driven sediment transport controls the shape of the delta, and much of the sediment emanating from the river mouth is deflected along the coast line. [17] The relationship between waves and river deltas is quite variable and largely influenced by the deepwater wave regimes of the receiving basin. With a high wave energy near shore and a steeper slope offshore, waves will make river deltas smoother. Waves can also be responsible for carrying sediments away from the river delta, causing the delta to retreat. [6] For deltas that form further upriver in an estuary, there are complex yet quantifiable linkages between winds, tides, river discharge, and delta water levels. [29] [30]

The Ganges Delta in India and Bangladesh is the largest delta in the world, and one of the most fertile regions in the world. Ganges River Delta, Bangladesh, India.jpg
The Ganges Delta in India and Bangladesh is the largest delta in the world, and one of the most fertile regions in the world.

Tide-dominated deltas

Erosion is also an important control in tide-dominated deltas, such as the Ganges Delta, which may be mainly submarine, with prominent sandbars and ridges. This tends to produce a "dendritic" structure. [31] Tidal deltas behave differently from a river- and wave-dominated deltas, which tend to have a few main distributaries. Once a wave- or river-dominated distributary silts up, it is abandoned, and a new channel forms elsewhere. In a tidal delta, new distributaries are formed during times when there is a lot of water around – such as floods or storm surges. These distributaries slowly silt up at a more or less constant rate until they fizzle out. [31]

Tidal freshwater deltas

A tidal freshwater delta [32] is a sedimentary deposit formed at the boundary between an upland stream and an estuary, in the region known as the "subestuary". [33] Drowned coastal river valleys that were inundated by rising sea levels during the late Pleistocene and subsequent Holocene tend to have dendritic estuaries with many feeder tributaries. Each tributary mimics this salinity gradient from their brackish junction with the mainstem estuary up to the fresh stream feeding the head of tidal propagation. As a result, the tributaries are considered to be "subestuaries". The origin and evolution of a tidal freshwater delta involves processes that are typical of all deltas [4] as well as processes that are unique to the tidal freshwater setting. [34] [35] The combination of processes that create a tidal freshwater delta result in a distinct morphology and unique environmental characteristics. Many tidal freshwater deltas that exist today are directly caused by the onset of or changes in historical land use, especially deforestation, intensive agriculture, and urbanization. [36] These ideas are well illustrated by the many tidal freshwater deltas prograding into Chesapeake Bay along the east coastline of the United States. Research has demonstrated that the accumulating sediments in this estuary derive from post-European settlement deforestation, agriculture, and urban development. [37] [38] [39]


Other rivers, particularly those on coasts with significant tidal range, do not form a delta but enter into the sea in the form of an estuary. Notable examples include the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Tagus estuary.

Inland deltas

Okavango Delta OkavangoDelta.png
Okavango Delta

In rare cases the river delta is located inside a large valley and is called an inverted river delta. Sometimes a river divides into multiple branches in an inland area, only to rejoin and continue to the sea. Such an area is called an inland delta, and often occurs on former lake beds. The term was first coined by Alexander von Humboldt for the middle reaches of the Orinoco River, which he visited in 1800. [40] Other prominent examples include the Inner Niger Delta, [41] Peace–Athabasca Delta, [42] the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, [43] and the Sistan delta of Iran. [44] The Danube has one in the valley on the Slovak-Hungarian border between Bratislava and Iža. [45]

In some cases, a river flowing into a flat arid area splits into channels that evaporate as it progresses into the desert. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is one example. [46]

Mega deltas

The generic term mega delta can be used to describe very large Asian river deltas, such as the Yangtze, Pearl, Red, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Ganges-Brahmaputra, and Indus. [47] [48]

Sedimentary structure

Delta on Kachemak Bay at low tide Line5066 - Flickr - NOAA Photo Library.jpg
Delta on Kachemak Bay at low tide

The formation of a delta is complicated, multiple, and cross-cutting over time, but in a simple delta three main types of bedding may be distinguished: the bottomset beds, foreset/frontset beds, and topset beds. This three part structure may be seen in small scale by crossbedding. [24] [49]

Existential threats to deltas

Human activities in both deltas and the river basins upstream of deltas can radically alter delta environments. [52] Upstream land use change such as anti-erosion agricultural practices and hydrological engineering such as dam construction in the basins feeding deltas have reduced river sediment delivery to many deltas in recent decades. [53] This change means that there is less sediment available to maintain delta landforms, and compensate for erosion and sea level rise, causing some deltas to start losing land. [53] Declines in river sediment delivery are projected to continue in the coming decades. [54]

The extensive anthropogenic activities in deltas also interfere with geomorphological and ecological delta processes. [55] People living on deltas often construct flood defences which prevent sedimentation from floods on deltas, and therefore means that sediment deposition can't compensate for subsidence and erosion. In addition to interference with delta aggradation, pumping of groundwater, [56] oil, and gas, [57] and constructing infrastructure all accelerate subsidence, increasing relative sea level rise. Anthropogenic activities can also destabilise river channels through sand mining, [58] and cause saltwater intrusion. [59] There are small-scale efforts to correct these issues, improve delta environments and increase environmental sustainability through sedimentation enhancing strategies.

While nearly all deltas have been impacted to some degree by humans, the Nile Delta and Colorado River Delta are some of the most extreme examples of the devastation caused to deltas by damming and diversion of water. [60] [61]

Historical data documents show that during the Roman Empire and Little Ice Age (times where there was considerable anthropogenic pressure), there was significant sediment accumulation in deltas. The industrial revolution has only amplified the impact of humans on delta growth and retreat. [62]

Deltas in the economy

Ancient deltas are a benefit to the economy due to their well sorted sand and gravel. Sand and gravel is often quarried from these old deltas and used in concrete for highways, buildings, sidewalks, and even landscaping. More than 1 billion tons of sand and gravel are produced in the United States alone. [63] Not all sand and gravel quarries are former deltas, but for ones that are, much of the sorting is already done by the power of water.

Urban areas and human habitation tends to locate in lowlands near water access for transportation and sanitation. [64] This makes deltas a common location for civilizations to flourish due to access to flat land for farming, freshwater for sanitation and irrigation, and sea access for trade. Deltas often host extensive industrial and commercial activities as well as agricultural land which are often in conflict. Some of the world's largest regional economies are located on deltas such as the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta, European Low Countries and the Greater Tokyo Area.


The Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta, which spans most of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India empties into the Bay of Bengal, is the world's largest delta. [65]

The Selenga River delta in the Russian republic of Buryatia is the largest delta emptying into a body of fresh water, in its case Lake Baikal.

Deltas on Mars

Researchers have found a number of examples of deltas that formed in Martian lakes. Finding deltas is a major sign that Mars once had large amounts of water. Deltas have been found over a wide geographical range. Below are pictures of a few. [66]

See also

Related Research Articles

Sediment Particulate solid matter that is deposited on the surface of land

Sediment is a naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of wind, water, or ice or by the force of gravity acting on the particles. For example, sand and silt can be carried in suspension in river water and on reaching the sea bed deposited by sedimentation; if buried, they may eventually become sandstone and siltstone through lithification.

Estuary Partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water

An estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. Estuaries form a transition zone between river environments and maritime environments and are an example of an ecotone. Estuaries are subject both to marine influences such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water, and to fluvial influences such as flows of freshwater and sediment. The mixing of seawater and freshwater provides high levels of nutrients both in the water column and in sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.

Braided river Network of river channels separated by small, and often temporary, islands

A braided river, or braided channel, consists of a network of river channels separated by small, often temporary, islands called braid bars or, in English usage, aits or eyots.

Alluvial fan Fan-shaped deposit of sediment

An alluvial fan is an accumulation of sediments that fans outwards from a concentrated source of sediments, such as a narrow canyon emerging from an escarpment. They are characteristic of mountainous terrain in arid to semiarid climates, but are also found in more humid environments subject to intense rainfall and in areas of modern glaciation. They range in area from less than 1 square kilometer (0.4 sq mi) to almost 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 sq mi).

Fly River River in Papua New Guinea

The Fly River is the third longest river in the island of New Guinea, after the Sepik River and Mamberamo River with a total length of 1,060 km (660 mi) and the largest by volume of discharge in Oceania, the largest in the world without a single dam in its catchment, and overall the 20th-largest primary river in the world by discharge volume. It is located in the southwest of Papua New Guinea and Papua Province of Indonesia. It rises in the Victor Emanuel Range arm of the Star Mountains, and crosses the south-western lowlands before flowing into the Gulf of Papua in a large delta. The Fly-Strickland River system has a total length of 1,220 km (760 mi) making it the longest river system of an island in the world, including 824 km (512 mi) Strickland River is the longest and largest tributary of Fly River, making it the farthest distance source of the Fly River.

Tidal marsh Marsh subject to tidal change in water

A tidal marsh is a marsh found along rivers, coasts and estuaries which floods and drains by the tidal movement of the adjacent estuary, sea or ocean. Tidal marshes experience many overlapping persistent cycles, including diurnal and semi-diurnal tides, day-night temperature fluctuations, spring-neap tides, seasonal vegetation growth and decay, upland runoff, decadal climate variations, and centennial to millennial trends in sea level and climate. Tidal marshes are formed in areas that are sheltered from waves, in upper slops of intertidal, and where water is fresh or saline. They are also impacted by transient disturbances such as hurricanes, floods, storms, and upland fires.

A tidal river is a river whose flow and level are influenced by tides. A section of a larger river affected by the tides is a tidal reach, but it may sometimes be considered a tidal river if it has been given a separate name.

Cross-bedding Sedimentary rock strata at differing angles

In geology, cross-bedding, also known as cross-stratification, is layering within a stratum and at an angle to the main bedding plane. The sedimentary structures which result are roughly horizontal units composed of inclined layers. The original depositional layering is tilted, such tilting not being the result of post-depositional deformation. Cross-beds or "sets" are the groups of inclined layers, which are known as cross-strata.

Ripple marks Wave structures created in sediments by bottom current

In geology, ripple marks are sedimentary structures and indicate agitation by water or wind.

Depositional environment Processes associated with the deposition of a particular type of sediment

In geology, depositional environment or sedimentary environment describes the combination of physical, chemical, and biological processes associated with the deposition of a particular type of sediment and, therefore, the rock types that will be formed after lithification, if the sediment is preserved in the rock record. In most cases, the environments associated with particular rock types or associations of rock types can be matched to existing analogues. However, the further back in geological time sediments were deposited, the more likely that direct modern analogues are not available.

The Tumblagooda Sandstone is a geological formation deposited during the Silurian or Ordovician periods, between four and five hundred million years ago, and is now exposed on the west coast of Australia in river and coastal gorges near the tourist town of Kalbarri, Kalbarri National Park and the Murchison River gorge, straddling the boundary of the Carnarvon and Perth basins. Visible trackways are interpreted by some to be the earliest evidence of fully terrestrial animals.

Sedimentary structures Geologic structures formed during sediment deposition

Sedimentary structures include all kinds of features in sediments and sedimentary rocks, formed at the time of deposition.

Avulsion (river) Rapid abandonment of a river channel and formation of a new channel

In sedimentary geology and fluvial geomorphology, avulsion is the rapid abandonment of a river channel and the formation of a new river channel. Avulsions occur as a result of channel slopes that are much less steep than the slope that the river could travel if it took a new course.

River mouth End of a river where it flows into a larger body of water

A river mouth is where a river flows into a larger body of water, such as another river, a lake/reservoir, a bay/gulf, a sea, or an ocean. At the river mouth, sediments are often deposited due to the slowing of the current reducing the carrying capacity of the water.

Bar (river morphology) Elevated region of sediment in a river that has been deposited by the flow

A bar in a river is an elevated region of sediment that has been deposited by the flow. Types of bars include mid-channel bars, point bars, and mouth bars. The locations of bars are determined by the geometry of the river and the flow through it. Bars reflect sediment supply conditions, and can show where sediment supply rate is greater than the transport capacity.

A mouth bar is an element of a deltaic system, which refers to typically mid-channel deposition of the sediment transported by the river channel at the river mouth.

Braid bar Depositional landform in a river which splits a channel

Braid bars, or mid-channel bars, are river landforms typically present in braided river channels. These formations have many names, including medial, longitudinal, crescentic, and transverse bars, as well as the more colloquial sandflat. Braid bars are distinguished from point bars due to their presence in the middle of a flow channel, rather than along a bank of the river channel.


A hapua is a river-mouth lagoon on a mixed sand and gravel (MSG) beach, formed at the river-coast interface where a typically braided, although sometimes meandering, river interacts with a coastal environment that is significantly affected by longshore drift. The lagoons which form on the MSG coastlines are common on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand and have long been referred to as hapua by the Māori. This classification differentiates hapua from similar lagoons located on the New Zealand coast termed waituna.

Sedimentation enhancing strategy

Sedimentation enhancing strategies are environmental management projects aiming to restore and facilitate land-building processes in deltas. Sediment availability and deposition are important because deltas naturally subside and therefore need sediment accumulation to maintain their elevation, particularly considering increasing rates of sea-level rise. Sedimentation enhancing strategies aim to increase sedimentation on the delta plain primarily by restoring the exchange of water and sediments between rivers and low-lying delta plains. Sedimentation enhancing strategies can be applied to encourage land elevation gain to offset sea-level rise. Interest in sedimentation enhancing strategies has recently increased due to their ability to raise land elevation, which is important for the long-term sustainability of deltas.

A deltaic lobe is a wetland formation that forms as a river empties water and sediment into other bodies of water. As the sediment builds up from this delta, the river will break away from its single channel and the mouth will be pushed outwards, forming a deltaic lobe.


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