Evolution and morphodynamics of rivers, floodplains and deltas

Deltas are highly dynamic natural environments at the interface between land and sea. They host a variety of unique ecosystems that provide critical ecosystem services. To date, deltas are under increasing pressure from massive urbanization, land-use change, river engineering, excessive drainage, eutrophication and water pollution, and groundwater and hydrocarbon extraction. Impacts of land subsidence, coastal erosion, flooding, water pollution, and wetland degradation may become even larger under future global change, with intensifying human activity, increasing weather extremes, changing river flows and accelerated sea-level rise.

At  Utrecht University we aim to contribute to finding solutions to these issues, by understanding delta functioning, predicting how deltas will respond to all these pressures, and how societies can successfully deal with this.

Ganges River delta. Satellite view. Photo credits: Elen11

Our Delta Evolution programme aims to develop a fundamental, data-driven understanding of the development of deltas and resulting subsurface architecture at time scales of millennia to centuries. We want to understand how these depend on water and sediment discharge from upstream basins, sea-level rise, tectonics, human interference and internal feedback mechanisms, such as avulsion and compaction.

Our research on fluvial landscape processes focuses on: the fate of sediments and associated contaminants along the source-to-sink connection from the river basin to the delta; development of floodplains as the product of the interactions between water, sediment and vegetation; monitoring floodplain vegetation and habitat characteristics.

We study human-landscape interactions in deltas across a range of time scales, starting from impacts of early delta settlers, land reclamation and river engineering, land drainage and groundwater extraction, to modern river restoration projects. We particularly focus on the role of subsurface characteristics and the long-term impacts of human activities.

In our research we integrate approaches and data from different disciplines (geology, geomorphology, soil science, archaeology, historic geography, hydrology, engineering) in large digital databases and state-of-art digital map products. In our process studies we deploy a combination of field sampling, remote sensing techniques and numerical modeling.

Our research contributes to the Pathways to Sustainability programme Water, Climate & Future Deltas hub, in which we explore management pathways that lead to sustainable development of deltas worldwide.