Critical transitions in suspended sediment dynamics in a temperate meso-tidal estuary
Cox, T.J.S.; Maris, T.; van Engeland, T.; Soetaert, K.; Meire, P. (2019). Critical transitions in suspended sediment dynamics in a temperate meso-tidal estuary. NPG Scientific Reports 9(1): 10 pp. https://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-48978-5
There is growing consensus that human interventions can fundamentally change fine sediment transport in estuaries. Critical transitions in response to human interventions have been hypothesized based on indirect observational evidence and theoretical understanding. So far direct evidence has been lacking. Based on a 20 year data-set of surface suspended particulate matter (SPM) concentrations, we present empirical evidence of critical transitions in a temperate meso-tidal estuary. In 2008–2009 the SPM dynamics of the Scheldt estuary (Belgium/The Netherlands) changed dramatically. Not only did the total amount of sediment in suspension increase, a new maximum turbidity zone (MTZ) at typical winter discharges appeared. At intermediate and low summer discharges the longitudinal distribution of SPM now flickers between two markedly different states. Our data suggest that a range of human interventions (fairway widening and deepening, dredging and dumping activities) set the scene leading to the observed transitions. Moreover the freshwater MTZ in the Scheldt and in its major tributary exhibit an increasing sensitivity towards freshwater discharge, coinciding with water quality improvements. This suggests large scale impacts of changes in eutrophication status on estuarine sediment dynamics. This has largely been a blind spot in morphodynamic research.
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