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Journal of the Geological Society, London, Vol. 147, 1990, pp. 743-745, 1 fig.

Printed in Northern Ireland

SHORT PAPER in estuaries, because of either infilling, channel wandering

The formation of coastal peat marshes or climatically controlled cycles of shoreline retreatand
under an upward tendencyof relative Relative to a tidal frame (Fig. la) moving with sea-level,
sea-level the local elevation E of the upward-growing mudflat-marsh
surface vanes with time t according tothe differential
J. R . L. ALLEN equation, introduced by Allen (1990) in another connection,
Postgraduate Research Institute for Sedimentology,
d E dSmi. dS,,
-=-+ dMdP
The University, Reading, Berks RG62AB, U K (1)
- dt dt dt dt dt
in which dS,, is the thickness of added minerogenic
The upward growth of a tidpl mudat-marsh within the tidal frame sediment, dS,,, the thickness of added organogenic material,
is determined theoretidy by therates of minerogenicsediment dM the change in relative sea-level (an upward tendency is
supply, organogenic sediment supply, long-range sediment compac- treated as positive) and d P the shortening of the column of
tion and movement of relative sea-level. Where the movement of sediment between the surface and base of the mudflat-marsh
relative sea-level is upward, a marsh can achieve a state of dynamic sequence due to long-range compaction (i.e. compaction
equilibrium in which the composition of the sediment accumulating duetoload, unrelated to short-term tidal and seasonal
on its surface is governed by the balancebetweentherates of drying).
organogenicsupplyand sea-level change. A peat(organogenic) The first tworight-handtermsdescribe the sediment
marsh should arise where the former rate roughly e q d s or exceeds supply. Wemodel the minerogenic termonthe main
the hlter. A minerogenicmarsh shouldformwhere the rate of assumption that each tide drowning the mudflat-marsh
sea-level rise is dominant, even though the absolute availability of provides a column of water, fed with mineral particles by
mineral h e sediment may be so high PS to appear to suggest that convection and diffusion, in morphological and hydraulic
build-up to extreme tidal levels, where vegetation would dominate, analogy with river floodplains (Knight 1989), from which
should have occurred. sediment settles at a rate controlled by the particle fractional
volume concentration and characteristicsettling velocity.
Thisterm is a very strongly decreasing function of the
Today and in the recent geological past,
an upward surface elevation; as the mudflat-marsh rises higher within
tendency of relative sea-level is evident in southern Britain the tidal frame, it is drowned by progressively fewer tides
(Devoy 1979; Shennan 1983, 1986; Emery & Aubrey 1985; and for progressively shorter periods at a time (e.g. Hartnoll
Newman & Baeteman 1987; Woodworth 1987; Allen & Rae & Hawkins 1982). Note that, ignoring storm effects,
1988) and along most of the East Coast of North America minerogenic sediment can be suppliedonly up to thelevel of
(Aubrey & Emery 1983; Hicks et al. 1983; Stevenson et al. the highest astronomical tide. The organogenic term
1986). Tidal marshes are widespread and locally extensive in represents the sum of root matter and of surface litter;
estuarine,back-barrier and open-coastalsettings in these organic detritus suspended in the tidal waters is subsumed in
regions (Chapman 1960). AsJohnson (1925) remarked of the minerogenic term. Surface elevation exerts a control on
American East Coastsystems, the marshesinsome areas the organogenic term, becausehalophyte species donot
are minerogenic (Fundy type), whereas elsewhere they are grow below a certaintidal level, commonly toward mean
organogenic (New England type) andunderlain by thick salt high-water neaps, and are zoned within the tidal range (e.g.
peats; certain areas are of a mixed character (Coastal Plain Long & Mason 1983). The organogenic term, however, is
type). Todays coastal andestuarine marshes in southern expected tobe only a weakly increasing function of the
Britain (Steers 1964) are exclusively minerogenic, as surface elevation,incontrast tothestrong minerogenic
exemplified by those of the Wash (Evans 1965), the Norfolk effect of opposite tendency.
Coast(Steers 1960; Pethick 1981) and the Severn Estuary Exceptwhere the organogenic termhas beenover-
(Allen & Rae 1987). whelmingly dominant from the start of upward growth, the
Huge amounts of the fine sediment have become trapped compaction term is notexpected to be other than a very
beneath the tidal marshes of these and similar regions. In weakly increasing function of surface position. This is
any attempt to understand the controls on coastal because earlypost-depositional drying of mudflat-marsh
sedimentary facies, it is therefore natural to enquire as to sediments on tidal to seasonal scales tendsto provide a
why, where the tendency of relative sea-level is upward, an deposit which, for its general lithology and thickness, is very
organic-dominatedmarshshould occur in one part of the well consolidated (e.g. Severn Estuary-Bristol Channel,
American East Coast when,
in another
portion, a Hawkins et al. (1989)).
mineral-dominated one has arisen.
Regarding southern The sea-level term is the only one independent of
Britain, we may ask why todays marshes are wholly mudflat-marsh growth processes. In areas where the
minerogenic, whereasinmid-Flandriantimessubstantial tendency of relative mean sea-level is upward, for example
peats repeatedly arose (e.g. Murray & Hawkins 1976). This the Gulf Coast and East Coast seaboards of North America
note suggests, from a consideration of general principles, and in southern Britain, the present rate is generally in the
that the outcomemay depend on therelative strength of the range 10-3-10-2 m a- (e.g. Hicks et al. 1983; Woodworth
organogenic supply and the upward sea-level movement. 1987).

for upward growth. Peatformation on salt marshes. Other than being an un-
Mudflats grading upinto saltmarshesarisein the high lithified, plant-dominated sediment,there is no general
intertidal zone of open coasts in response tothe growth agreement as to how peat should be defined composition-
and movement of sheltering barrier islands and spits and, ally, and it is here taken to be a material containing 75%

hiahesl astronomical tide

lowest astronomical tide

Fig. 1. Control exerted by the rate of

\ organogenic sediment supplyon the
non-dimensional elevationof an equi-
librium marsh relative to the tidal frame,
when the sediment formingon the marsh
just qualifies as a peat (75% by dry
weight of organic matter). The charac-
2 4 * 10-3 2 4 2 teristic sediment fractional volume con-
centration refers to the minerogenic fine
rate of organogenic sedimentation (m a-l) sediment suspended in the tidal waters.

(dry mass) ormore of organic matter.Theremainder is The numerical value of k depends on (1) the weight percent
minerogenic. of organic matter required by the definition, (2) the solids
An inspection of Eq. (1) will show whether or not a peat density of the mineral particles and organic matter, and (3)
so defined can form in a tidal setting when relative sea-level the fractional porosity of the depositedmaterialbefore
is rising. Two issues are relevant. First, under what 'long-range' compaction. For peat as above, quartz-density
circumstances will a mudflat-marsh build up to a state of mineral matter and an intermediate fractional porosity (say,
dynamic equilibrium, thatis, can it rise to a constant 0.4), k is approximately 0.18. When the inequality is not
elevation relative to the tidal frame? Secondly, under what satisfied, the proportion of organic matter falls below that
conditions is thebalancebetweenthe minerogenic and allowing the deposit on the equilibrium marsh to be called
organogenic supplies to that surface such as to create peat? peat. The marsh is then minerogenic.
The required state of dynamic equilibrium is equivalent
to putting dE/dt = 0 in Eq. (1). We then see that dynamic Some ealcnletions. It is interesting to attempt to estimate,
equilibrium is possible when the minerogenic term is zero, forreal mudflat-marsh systems, at what actualelevation
provided thatthe organogenicsupply precisely balances relative to the tidal frame a peat could form under condi-
compaction and sea-level rise combined.Equilibrium is tions of dynamic equilibrium and of rising relativesea-
attainable, however, only after an infinitely long time, when level.
the marsh will have ascended to the elevation of the highest Assuming the independent sea-level term to be constant
astronomical tide (nil minerogenic supply). When the and thatthe organogenic and compactionterms are also
organogenic term falls below the combined sea-level and constant on account of the expected nature of the functions,
compaction terms, equilibrium becomes possible in a finite Eq. (1) was integrated numerically for the known tidal and
time,because the value of the minerogenic termthen fine-sediment regimes of the SevernEstuary in southwest
satisfying dE/dt = 0 is non-zero. Thestable equilibrium Britain.Although severely macrotidal, the estuaryhas a
surface consequently forms at an elevation below that of the typical semi-diurnal tidal regime (Pugh 1987), as shown by
highest astronomical tide,thedegree of its depression the predictedastronomical tides for thestandardport of
increasing with the deficit between the organogenic and the Avonmouth (e.g. Hydrographer of the Navy 1988). The
combined sea-level and compaction terms. main features are an extreme tidal range of 14.8 m, mean
The sedimentsteadilydeposited on this dynamically spring and neap ranges of 12.3 m and 6.5 m respectively,
stable surface has a constant composition determined by the mean high-water springs of 13.2 m above tidal datum and
relative importance of the two sediment terms in Eq. (1). mean high-water neaps of 10.0m.Theestuarine waters
Further substituting dS,,,,/dt = k(dS,,Jdt), where k > 0 is a contain much flocculated silt and clay which, with varying
coefficient, the condition that the depositmeetscomposi- degrees of time lag, changesinconcentration with tidal
tionally some chosen definition of a peat (organogenic height on semidiurnal, semilunar, lunar and seasonal time
marsh) is scales (Hydraulics Research Station 1981; Kirby 1986). The
characteristicparticlefractionalvolumeconcentration and
settling velocity, however, are 2.25 X 10-4 and 2.5 X
10-4m S-' respectively. The minerogenicterm is then
J . R. L . ALLEN 745

calculated from these base values on introducing (1) I thank H. Begg for the calculations underlying Fig. 1 . The work
empirical loading factors accounting for observed variations waspartlysupportedbyaResearchGrantfrom theNational
in concentration with season and tidal height,and (2) an Environment Research Council, which is gratefully acknowledged.
empirical factor allowing forsome wave- andcurrent- Reading University PRIS contribution No. 063.
controllednon-deposition and resuspension of the tidal
sediment. By varying the characteristic sediment concentra-
ALLEN, J.R.L. 1990. Constraints on measurement of sea-levelmovement
tion, we can then explore semidiurnal systems which differ fromsalt-marsh accretion rates. JournaloftheGeological Society,
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results appear in Fig. l(b), in which the elevation relative to -& RAE,J. E. 1987. Late Flandrian shoreline oscillations in the Severn
the tidalframe of the equilibrium,justpeat-generating Estuary: a geomorphological and stratigraphical reconnaissance.
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extremetidal range (level of the lowest astronomical low the Severn Estuary, southwest Britain. Marine Geology, 83, 225-235.
tide = 0%). The equilibriumsurface invariably lies close AUBREY, D. G. & EMERY,K. 0.1983. Eigenvalue analysis of recent United
below the level of the highest astronomical tide,but its States sea levels. Continental Shelf Research, 2, 21-33.
elevation falls with declining characteristic turbidity and is CHAPMAN, V. J. 1960. Salt marshes and salt deserts of the world. Leonard Hill,
comparatively insensitive to the rate of organogenic supply. DEVOY, R. J. N. 1979. Flandrian sea level changes and vegetational history of
the lower Thames Estuary. PhilosophicalTransactionsoftheRoyal
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Discussion. Taking surface
a peat
denotean or- EMERY, K.0. & AUBREY, D. G. 1985. Glacial rebound and relative sea level
ganogenic marsh,the inequality, Eq. (2), would appear in Europe from tide-gauge records. Tectonophysics, UO, 239-255.
to be critical to the question of which type of equilibrium EVANS, G. 1%5. Intertidal flats and their environments of deposition in the
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dency. As the coefficient is small, thequotient 1/(1+ k ) HARTNOLL, R. G. & HAWKINS, D. J. 1982. The emersion curve in semidiurnal
differs little from unity. Hence in order for a peat marsh tidal regimes. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 15, 365-371.
to exist, the organogenic term should roughly equalor HAWKIN A.S ,B., LARNACH, W. J., LLOYD,I. M. & NASH,D. F. T. 1989.
exceed the combinedmagnitudes of the sea-level and Selecting the location, and the initial investigation of SERC soft clay test
site. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology, 22, 281-316.
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small compared with presentrates of upward sea-level for the UnitedStates
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Received 7 March 1990; revised type script accepted 16 April 1990.