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Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5252

In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sand Resources, Regional Geology, and Coastal Processes of the Chandeleur Islands Coastal System: an Evaluation of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge

Edited by Dawn Lavoie


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Breton National Wildlife Refuge, the Chandeleur Islands chain in Louisiana, provides habitat and nesting areas for wildlife and is an initial barrier protecting New Orleans from storms. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with the University of New Orleans Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences undertook an intensive study that included (1) an analysis of island change based on historical maps and remotely sensed shoreline and topographic data; (2) a series of lidar surveys at 3- to 4-month intervals after Hurricane Katrina to determine barrier island recovery potential; (3) a discussion of sea level rise and effects on the islands; (4) an analysis of sea floor evolution and sediment dynamics in the refuge over the past 150 years; (5) an assessment of the local sediment transport and sediment resource availability based on the bathymetric and subbottom data; (6) a carefully selected core collection effort to groundtruth the geophysical data and more fully characterize the sediments composing the islands and surrounds; (7) an additional survey of the St. Bernard Shoals to assess their potential as a sand resource; and (8) a modeling study to numerically simulate the potential response of the islands to the low-intensity, intermediate, and extreme events likely to affect the refuge over the next 50 years.

Results indicate that the islands have become fragmented and greatly diminished in subaerial extent over time: the southern islands retreating landward as they reorganize into subaerial features, the northern islands remaining in place. Breton Island, because maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) outer bar channel requires dredging, is deprived of sand sufficient to sustain itself. Regional sediment transport trends indicate that large storms are extremely effective in transporting sand and controlling the shoreline development and barrier island geometry. Sand is transported north and south from a divergent zone near Monkey Bayou at the southern end of the Chandeleur Islands. Numerical simulation of waves and sediment transport supports the geophysical results and indicates that vast areas of the lower shoreface are affected and are undergoing erosion during storm events, that there is little or no fair weather mechanism to rework material into the littoral system, and that as a result, there is a net loss of sediment from the system. Lidar surveys revealed that the island chain immediately after Hurricane Katrina lost about 84 percent of its area and about 92 percent of its prestorm volume. Marsh platforms that supported the islands’ sand prior to the storm were reduced in width by more than one-half. Repeated lidar surveys document that in places the shoreline has retreated about 100 m under the relatively low-energy waves since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; however, this retreat is nonuniform.

Recent high-resolution geophysical surveys of the sea floor and subsurface within 5–6 km of the Chandeleur Islands during 2006 and 2007 show that, in addition to the sand that is rebuilding portions of the island chain, a large volume of sand is contained in Hewes Point, in an extensive subtidal spit platform that has formed at the northern end of the Chandeleur Islands. Hewes Point appears to be the depositional terminus of the alongshore transport system. In the southern Chandeleurs, sand is being deposited in a broad tabular deposit near Breton Island called the southern offshore sand sheet. These two depocenters account for approximately 70 percent of the estimated sediment volume located in potential borrow sites. An additional large potential source of sand for restoration lies in the St. Bernard Shoals, which are estimated to contain approximately 200 × 106 m3 of sand.

Successful restoration planning for the Breton National Wildlife Refuge should mimic the natural processes of early stages of barrier island evolution including lateral transport to the flanks of the island chain from a centralized sand source that will ultimately enhance the ability of the islands to naturally build backbarrier marsh, dunes, and a continuous sandy shoreline. Barrier island sediment nourishment should be executed with the understanding that gulf shoreline erosion is inevitable but that island area can be maintained and enhanced during retreat (thus significantly prolonging the life of the island chain) with strategic sand placement.

First posted March 3, 2010

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Suggested citation:

Lavoie, D., ed., 2009, Sand resources, regional geology, and coastal processes of the Chandeleur Islands coastal system—an evaluation of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5252, 180 p.


Executive Summary

Chapter A. Hurricane Impact and Recovery Shoreline Change Analysis and Historical Island Configuration: 1700s to 2005

Chapter B. Extreme Coastal Changes on the Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana, During and After Hurricane Katrina

Chapter C. Past, Present, and Future Sea Level Rise and Effects on Coasts Under Changing Global Climate

Chapter D. Historical (1869–2007) Sea Floor Evolution and Sediment Dynamics Along the Chandeleur Islands

Chapter E. Geologic Mapping of Distribution and Volume of Potential Resources

Chapter F. Sediment Sampling Analysis To Define Quality of Sand Resources

Chapter G. The St. Bernard Shoals: an Outer Continental Shelf Sedimentary Deposit Suitable for Sandy Barrier Island Renourishment

Chapter H. Numerical Simulation of Waves and Sediment Transport Along a Transgressive Barrier Island

Chapter I. Summary and Discussion

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