Analyses of an extensive grid of seismic reflection profiles along with previously published core data and modern sedimentary environment information from surrounding coastal areas permit an outline of the paleogeography of the large Delaware Bay estuary during the last transgression of sea level. During late Wisconsinan times, the Delaware River system eroded a dendritic drainage pattern into the gravelly and muddy sands of Tertiary and younger age beneath the southern half of the lower bay area. This system included the trunk valley of the ancestral river and a large tributary valley formed by the convergence of secondary streams along the Delaware coast. The evolution of the estuary from this drainage system proceeded as follows: (1) When local relative sea level was at -50 m, the head of the tide reached the present bay-mouth area. (2) At -40 m (possibly 15,000-12,000 yrs ago), the trunk valley of the drainage system was a tidal river that extended more than 30 km up the bay, and a small contiguous inlet existed at the bay mouth. (3) At -30 m (approximately 11,000-10,000 yrs ago), the estuary comprised two narrow passages formed by the drowning of the main and tributary river valleys, and the bay-mouth inlet was 5-6 km wide. (4) At -20 m (between 8000 and 7000 yrs ago), the two passages of the estuary were joined, except for a series of small islands on top of a low intervening ridge, and the inlet channel was 11 km wide. (5) At -10 m (between 6000 and 5000 yrs ago), the estuary was nearly continuous and encompassed about 60% of the present lower bay area. Thin, coarse-grained fluvial deposits accumulated initially within the main channels of the former drainage system as base level was elevated by rising sea level. During the subsequent development of the estuary, clayey silts were deposited rapidly beneath the nontidal estuarine depocenter (turbidity maximum) as it migrated through the bay area, and organic muds accumulated in tidal wetlands that occupied the mouths of tributaries and small marginal embayments. As the fetch and tidal prism of the estuary increased, narrow barrier and headland beaches, composed of fine to coarse sands, were formed locally along the bay shorelines. In the later stages of development, sediment scour, reworking and transport became the dominant processes within the open estuary. Data from this study demonstrate the great temporal and spatial variability of sedimentary deposits within large drowned river-valley estuaries and outline a model that can be used to interpret ancient estuarine strata. ?? 1988.
Additional publication details
Late Wisconsinan-Holocene paleogeography of Delaware Bay; a large coastal plain estuary