Moving Land: Erosion and Sediments

Land loss and land gain are terms we throw around a lot at CWPPRA but what do they mean? Where does the old land go and where does the new land come from? To answer that, we need to understand that “land” is made of inorganic particles that we call sediment and various types of organic matter. Sand, clay, gravel, boulders, and silt are all types of sediment, and grain size is how we classify them. [1] For example, a boulder is larger than gravel, which is larger than a grain of sand, which is larger than a silt particle, etc. Sediment size influences how each grain experiences force and inertia, which leads to different rates of land loss and gain between sediments. Imagine holding a handful of sand in one hand and a handful of gravel in the other. Now imagine you blow as hard as you can on each one. More gravel would stay in your hand than sand. The same is true of sediment in water- smaller grains of sand can be picked up more easily by the forces acting on them than the gravel can.

Erosion detaches sediment from an original source, such as a cliff face or the middle of a valley. Over long periods of time, eroded particles get smaller and smaller, eventually degrading to sand or silt, depending on the mineral base. Once they get into a river or stream, their movement is connected to water flow. When water flows faster or stronger, it “suspends” and carries more sediment, while sediments in slower currents tend to settle out and “deposit” on the bottom of the lake, bayou, or swamp. Approximately 40% of the USA drains through the Mississippi River, and any suspended sediment in those waterways travels through Louisiana on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. [2]

Sediments move downstream differently depending on their size class.

Wetlands are defined by sediment type and other characteristics including salinity. In Louisiana, we have fresh water wetlands like swamps and bottomland hardwood forests, but also saline wetlands like salt and brackish marsh. Each of these wetlands types contains fine sediment particles, and they are all relatively new in the scope of geologic time. Because they are young, there are not many hard-packed substrates in Louisiana wetlands, but instead deeper layers of sediment that are compacting and subsiding. [3] Sediment replenishment is important to all the wetlands in Louisiana because new sediment is needed on top of compacting sediment to maintain elevations that support plant life and productive ecosystems. Unfortunately, sediments that should be replenishing the wetlands of Louisiana are not doing so. Instead, they are being transported out into the Gulf of Mexico or are trapped farther upstream behind dams. More information about this topic can be found in our post “The Mississippi River Deltaic Cycle”. Controlling the flow of the Mississippi river keeps sediments suspended for longer because water does not disperse or slow down as it naturally wants to. Without new sediment, marsh platforms lose structural integrity and they erode, leaving open water where marsh once was.

To answer the original question; for CWPPRA land loss is the process of sediment and marsh sinking or eroding into open water along Louisiana’s coastline and reducing the land available. Land gain describes the process of sediment depositing to form new platforms and it is much less common along our coast, but CWPPRA and their Partners in Restoration are working to restore the integrity of coastal wetlands by moving and capturing sediment, planting stabilizing species on terraces, and creating marsh in critical areas. Combating land loss is a multi-disciplinary effort, and we have a long fight ahead.


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