The Louisiana coastal zone, comprising the Mississippi River delta plain stretching nearly 400 km from Sabine Pass at the Texas border east to the Chandeleur Islands at the Mississippi border, represents one of North America’s most important coastal ecosystems in terms of natural resources, human infrastructure, and cultural heritage. At the same time, this region has the highest rates of coastal erosion and wetland loss in the Nation due to a complex combination of natural processes and anthropogenic actions over the past century. Comparison of historical maps dating back to 1855 and recent aerial photography show the Louisiana coast undergoing net erosion at highly variable rates. Rates have increased significantly during the past several decades. Earlier published statewide average shoreline erosion rates were >6 m/yr; rates have increased recently to >10 m/yr. The increase is attributable to collective action of storms, rapid subsidence, and pervasive man-made alterations of the rivers and the coast. In response to the dramatic landloss, regional-scale restoration plans are being developed by a partnership of federal and state agencies for the delta plain that have the objectives of maintaining the barrier islands, reducing wetland loss, and enhancing the natural sediment delivery processes.
There is growing awareness that the sustainability of coastal Louisiana‘s natural resources and human infrastructure depends on the successful restoration of natural geologic processes. Critical to the long term success of restoration is scientific understanding of the geologic history and processes of the coastal zone region, including interactions between the rivers, wetlands, coast, and inner shelf.
A variety of geophysical studies and mapping of Late Quaternary sedimentary framework and coastal processes by U.S. Geological Survey and other scientists during the past 50 years document that the Louisiana delta plain is the product of a complex history of cyclic delta switching by the Mississippi River and its distributaries over the past ~10,000 years that resulted in laterally overlapping deltaic depocenters. The interactions among riverine, coastal, and inner shelf processes have been superimposed on the Holocene transgression resulting in distinctive landforms and sedimentary sequences.
Four Holocene shelf-phase delta complexes have been identified using seismic reflection data and vibracores. Each delta complex is bounded by transgressive surfaces. Following each cycle of deposition and abandonment, the delta lobes undergo regional subsidence and marine reworking that forms transgressive coastal systems and barrier islands. Ultimately, the distal end of each of the abandoned delta lobes is marked by submerged marine sand bodies representing drowned barriers. These sand bodies (e.g. Ship Shoal, Outer Shoal, Trinity Shoal, Tiger Shoal, St. Bernard Shoal) offer the largest volumes and highest quality sand for beach nourishment and shoreline and wetlands restoration.
These four large sand shoals on inner continental shelf, representing the reworked remnants of former prograded deltaic headlands that existed on the continental shelf at lower sea level, were generated in the retreat path of the Mississippi River delta plain during the Holocene transgression. Penland and others (1989) have shown these sand bodies represent former shoreline positions associated with lower still stands in sea level. Short periods of rapid relative sea-level rise led to the transgressive submergence of the shorelines which today can be recognized at the -10 m to -20 m isobaths on the Louisiana continental shelf. Trinity Shoal and Ship Shoal represent the -10 m middle-to-late Holocene shoreline trend, whereas Outer Shoal and the St. Bernard Shoals define the -20 m early Holocene shoreline trend (Penland and others, 1989). Collectively, these sand shoals constitute a large volume of high quality sandy sediment potentially suitable for barrier island nourishment and coastal restoration.
The USGS has actively supported coastal and wetlands geologic research for the past two decades in partnership with universities (e.g., Louisiana State University, University of New Orleans), state agencies (e.g. Louisiana Geological Survey, Louisiana Department of Natural Resources), and private organizations (Williams and others, 1992a,b; Williams and Cichon, 1993; List and others, 1994). These studies have focused on regional-scale mapping of coastal and wetland change and developing a better understanding of the processes that cause coastal erosion and wetlands loss, particularly the rapid deterioration of Louisiana‘s barrier islands, estuaries, and wetlands environments. With a better understanding of these processes, the ability to model and predict erosion and wetlands loss will improve. More accurate predictions will, in turn, allow for proper management of coastal resources. Improved predictions will also allow for better assessments of the utility of different restoration alternatives.