Bayhead delta evolution in the context of late Quaternary and Holocene sea-level change, Richards Bay, South Africa

Nonkululeko Dladla, A.N. Green, Andrew Cooper, Paul Mehlhorn, Torsten Haberzettl

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Richards Bay is part of a back-barrier lagoon fronted by high coastal dunes on the NE, Indian Ocean coast of South Africa. In the early 1970s, a berm was constructed, dividing the original Mhlathuze Estuary into two separate systems; the Richards Bay Harbour and the new Mhlathuze Estuary. This study investigates the stratigraphic evolution of the incised valley system and bayhead delta in the Richards Bay Harbour segment. Seven seismic units (Units 1–7) were imaged. A single regionally developed sequence boundary (SB) along with two tidal ravinement surfaces (tRS1 and tRS2) were identified. Surface SB is associated with the LGM lowstand which developed when sea levels were ~ 130 m below present, until ~18,000 year BP. Cretaceous age siltstones (Unit 1) form the basement. Transgressive material overlying SB (Unit 2) reflects the filling of an incised valley located in the middle segment of a wave-dominated back-barrier system. It is overlain by a bayhead delta (Unit 3), the geometry and seismic signature of which indicate alternating periods of aggradation/progradation and backstepping. The behaviour is attributed to episodic jumps in sea-level, and is tentatively (on the basis of elevations in relation to the regional sea-level curve) linked to periods of rapidly rising sea-level (8.2 ka event and Meltwater Pulse (MWP)-1d). These intervals of rapidly rising sea-level, combined with relatively low gradient settings facilitated backstepping of the delta. Fills (Unit 4) occur within minor incisions along the delta top. These are interpreted as distributary channels that fed sediment to the seaward edge of the bayhead delta system. Elongated mounds on the seafloor (Unit 5) are interpreted as spoil from contemporary port dredging. Slump deposits (Unit 6) along the delta front are attributed to a combination of oversteepening of the delta by dredging, as well as deposition of modern sediments brought into the system by tidal currents. The system is capped by fine-grained, tidally redistributed and deposited sediments (Unit 7) which were possibly sourced from older organic material of an indeterminate source. This site is especially sensitive to episodic rates of sea-level change due to the relatively small Glacial Isostatic Adjustments (GIA) during the postglacial transgression and the flat antecedent gradients of both the subaerial unconformity and the overlying tidal ravinement.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106608
Number of pages17
JournalMarine Geology
Early online date20 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 30 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research [grant numbers: 03F0798A , 03F0798B , 03F0798C ] and is part of project TRACES (Tracing Human and Climate impact in South Africa) within the SPACES II Program (Science Partnerships for the Assessment of Complex Earth System Processes). The field work support by George Best is gratefully acknowledged. We acknowledge Dr. Peter Ramsay and Anchor Energy (Pty) Ltd. for permission to use the geophysical data sets. Doug Slogrove and Gaynor Deacon are acknowledged in this regard.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.


  • Bayhead delta
  • Incised valleys
  • Backstepping
  • Meltwater pulses
  • Antecedent gradient


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