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ABSTRACT: The Geomorphology of the Chandeleur Island Wetlands

K. Debusschere, L. Handley, T. Michot, S. Penland, D. Reed, R. Seal, K. Westphal

The Chandeleur Islands represent the largest and oldest transgressive barrier island arc in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Generated by the transgressive submergence of the St. Bernard delta complex, the Chandeleur Islands form the protective geologic framework for one of the richest areas of salt marsh and seagrass flats in Louisiana. The Chandeleur barrier island arc is 60 km long and consists of five individual islands backed by a linear, multiple bar system enclosing a shallow basin floored by extensive seagrass flats. The northern part of the Chandeleur chain is the highest in relief, elevation, width, and habitat diversity. Nonstorm morphology is predominantly a combination of continuous dunes and dune terraces. Numerous washover channels and large washover fans exten into the backbarrier environment. Further south, the island width decreases and washover flats and terraces dominate the shoreline morphology. In the southernmost section, the island arc is fragmented into a series of small islands and shoals separated by tidal inlets.

Between 1984 and 1989, aerial videotape, aerial photographic, and bathymetric surveys were used to map and monitor the geomorphic changes occurring along the shoreline and in backbarrier areas. The aerial videotape mapping surveys focused on the impacts of hurricanes Danny, Elena, and Juan on the geomorphology of the islands. Videotape imagery was acquired in July 1984 and in July (pre-storm), August (post-Danny), September (post-Elena), and November (post-Juan) 1985. A coastal geomorphic classification was developed to map the spatial and temporal landscape changes between surveys. Hurricane Danny's impact on the Chandeleur Islands resulted in a reduction of landform relief and the breaching of 71 major and 59 minor washover channels. Hurricane Elena further lowered the profile of th Chandeleur Islands and breached 79 major and 61 minor washover channels. After hurricane Juan, a total of 64 major and 48 minor washover channels was left, and the higher-relief dune terraces and washover terraces were fragmented or destroyed. The primary morphology of the Chandeleur Islands was reduced to washover flats, intertidal flats, and other lower-relief landforms.

Aerial photography from 1978, 1984, 1985, and 1989 was interpreted, digitized, and controlled for distortion. A GIS analysis was performed to map the changes in backbarrier marshes and seagrass flats. In addition, a bathymetric survey was conducted in the backbarrier seagrass flats. A total of 67 bathymetric profiles were acquired between Hewes Point and South Chandeleur Island Spit. The results of the bathymetric survey complement the geomorphology obtained from the videotape and aerial photo mapping with backbarrier morphology.

The videotape, aerial photographic, and bathymetric data clearly demonstrate the role of storm events regularly overwashing the islands and depositing fans of sediment in the backbarrier marshes and seagrass flats. Breaching of washover channels provides sediments to backbarrier areas. The subsequent development of flood-tidal deltas provides a new substrate for marsh and seagrass colonization. The development of new salt marshes counteracts beach erosion, helps to maintain island area, and promotes landward barrier island migration.

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90999©1990 GCAGS and Gulf Coast Section SEPM Meeting, Lafayette, Louisiana, October 17-19, 1990