Holocene Evolution of the Western Louisiana–Texas Coast, USA: Response to Sea-Level Rise and Climate Change

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Book Chapter

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Ocean Science and Engineering


An extensive grid of high-resolution seismic data, hundreds of sediment cores, and a robust radiocarbon-age data set acquired over nearly four decades allows detailed analysis of Holocene coastal evolution of western Louisiana and Texas, USA. Results from this study provide a framework for assessing the response of a myriad of coastal environments to climate change and variable sea-level rise. Climate varies across the region today, spanning four climate zones from humid to semi-arid, and has fluctuated during the Holocene. The most notable changes were alterations between cool/ wet and warm/dry conditions. Sea-level records for the northwestern Gulf of Mexico indicate an average rate of rise during the early Holocene of 4.2 mm/yr, punctuated by rates exceeding 10.0 mm/yr. After ca. 7.0 ka, the rate of rise slowed, and by ca. 4.0 ka, the average rate decreased from 0.6 mm/yr to 0.3 mm/yr. The current rate of sea-level rise in the region is 3.0 mm/yr, marking a return to early Holocene conditions.

Despite its incomplete stratigraphic record of coastal evolution during the middle and early Holocene, it is still the most complete record for the Gulf Coast. Bay evolution, as recorded within the offshore Trinity and Sabine incised valleys, was characterized by periods of bayhead delta and tidal delta expansion, followed by episodes of dramatic landward shifts in these environments. The ancestral Brazos, Colorado, and Rio Grande river deltas and coastal barriers also experienced landward stepping during the early Holocene. The widespread nature of these flooding events and their impact on multiple coastal environments suggests that they were caused by episodes of rapid sea-level rise.

Similar methods were used to study modern bays, including the acquisition of seismic lines and drill cores along the axes of the bays to examine the magnitudes and timing of transgressive events. Results from Lake Calcasieu, Sabine Lake, Galveston Bay, Matagorda Bay, Copano Bay, Corpus Christi Bay, and Baffin Bay reveal that landward shifts in bayhead deltas, on the order of kilometers per century, occurred between 9.8 ka and 9.5 ka, 8.9–8.5 ka, 8.4–8.0 ka, and 7.9–7.5 ka. These results are consistent with those from offshore studies and indicate that punctuated sea-level rise dominated coastal evolution during the early Holocene.

By ca. 7.0 ka, the average rate of sea-level rise in the northern Gulf of Mexico decreased to 1.4 mm/yr, and there was considerable sinuosity of the coastline and variability in the timing of bay and coastal barrier evolution. The diachronous nature of coastal environment migration across the region indicates that sea-level rise played a secondary role to climate-controlled oscillations in river sediment discharge to the coast. At ca. 4.0 ka, the average rate of sea-level rise decreased to 0.5 mm/yr. During this period of slow sea-level rise, coastal bays began to take on their current form, with the exception of changes in the sizes and locations of bayhead deltas caused by changes in sediment supply from rivers. There were also significant changes in the size and configuration of tidal inlets and deltas as a result of barrier growth. The late Holocene was also a time when coastal barriers experienced progradation and transgression on the order of several kilometers. The timing of these changes varied across the region, which is another indication that sea-level rise played a minor role in coastal change during the late Holocene. Instead, barrier evolution during this time was controlled by fluctuations in sand supply to the coast from rivers and offshore sources.

Historical records indicate a dramatic reversal in coastal evolution marked by increased landward shoreline migration of chenier plains and coastal barriers across the region. The main cause of this change is accelerated sea-level rise during this century and diminished sediment supply to the coast. Wetlands are also experiencing rapid change due to their inability to keep pace with sea-level rise, especially in areas where subsidence rates are high. Although direct human influence is a factor in these changes, these impacts are more localized. Coastal change is expected to increase over the next several decades as the rate of sea-level rise increases, the climate in Texas becomes more arid, and more severe storms impact the coast.

Publication Title

Holocene Evolution of the Western Louisiana–Texas Coast, USA: Response to Sea-Level Rise and Climate Change