Tidal Flat Depositional Response to Neotectonic Cyclic Uplift and Subsidence (1–2 m) as Superimposed on Latest-Holocene Net Sea Level Rise (1.0 m/ka) in a Large Shallow Mesotidal Wave-Dominated Estuary, Willapa Bay, Washington, USA

  •  Curt D. Peterson    
  •  Sandy Vanderburgh    


The late-Holocene record of tidal flat deposition in the large shallow Willapa Bay estuary (43 km in length), located in the Columbia River Littoral Cell (CRLC) system (160 km length), was investigated with new vibracores (n=30) and gouge cores (n=8), reaching 2–5 m depth subsurface. Reversing up-core trends of muddy sand to peaty mud deposits in marginal tidal flat settings demonstrate episodic submergence events resulting from cyclic tectonic uplift and subsidence (1–2 m) in the Cascadia subduction zone. These short-term reversals are superimposed on longer-term trends of overall sediment coarsening-up, which represent the transgression of higher-energy sandy tidal flats over pre-existing lower-energy tidal flat mud and peaty mud deposits in late-Holocene time. Fining-up trends associated with channel lateral migration and accretionary bank deposition occurred only infrequently in the broad intertidal flats of Willapa Bay. Vibracores and gouge cores were dated by 14C (n=16) and paleo-subsidence event contacts (n=17). Vibracore median probability 14C ages ranged from 0 to 6,992 yr BP and averaged 2,174 yr BP. Dated sample ages and corresponding depths of tidal flat deposits yield net sedimentation rates of 0.9–1.2 m ka-1, depending on the averaging methods used. Net sedimentation rates in the intertidal flat settings (~1.0 m ka-1) are comparable to the rate of net sea level rise (~1.0 m ka-1), as based on dated paleo-tidal marsh deposits in Willapa Bay. Reported modern inputs of river sand (total=1.77x104 m3 yr-1), from the three small rivers that flow into Willapa Bay, fall well short of the estimated increasing accommodation space (1.9x105 m3 yr-1) in the intertidal (MLLW-MHHW) setting (1.9x108 m2 surface area) during the last 3 ka, or 3.0 m of sea level rise. The under-supply of tributary sand permitted the influx of littoral sand (1.1x105 m3 yr-1) into Willapa Bay, as based on the net sedimentation rate (~1.0 m ka-1) and textural composition (average 60 % littoral sand) in analyzed core sections (n=179). The long-term littoral sand sink in Willapa Bay’s intertidal setting (55 % of total estuary area) is estimated to be about 5 % of the Columbia River supply of sand to the CRLC system, and about 30% relative to the littoral sand accumulated in barrier spits and beach plains during late-Holocene time. A 2.0 m rise in future sea level could yield a littoral sand sink of 2.2x108 m3 in the Willapa Bay intertidal setting, resulting in an equivalent shoreline retreat of 600 m along a 50 km distance of the barrier spit and beach plains that are located adjacent to the Willapa Bay tidal inlet. Willapa Bay serves as proxy for potential littoral sand sinks in other shallow mesotidal estuary-barrier-beach systems around the world following future global sea level rise.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
  • ISSN(Print): 1916-9779
  • ISSN(Online): 1916-9787
  • Started: 2009
  • Frequency: semiannual

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