The Pontchartrain Basin extends over 44,000 km2 from northern Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and includes one of the largest and most important estuarine systems in the United States. The basin supports a variety of environments, from woodlands in the north to wetlands in the south, and a growing socioeconomic infrastructure that has led to rapid development of the southern half of the basin over the past two centuries. To properly administer this infrastructure, managers need to understand the complex geologic framework of the basin and how it will respond to continued sea-level rise, variable rates and magnitudes of land subsidence, and human alteration of the landscape. This article summarizes the body of work that describes the regional evolution and stratigraphic architecture of the Pontchartrain Basin.
The northern two-thirds of the basin is underlain by a stratigraphy of undifferentiated sands and clays deposited throughout the Plio-Pleistocene by glacially influenced rivers. These deposits were weathered and incised by rivers during sea-level low stands, forming a series of terraces that increase with age from south to north. The southern third of the basin is composed of estuaries formed during the Holocene, while shoreline processes created a series of sandy barriers that restricted communication to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River completed the geologic development of the basin by building a sequence of subdelta lobes along this southern margin over the past 5000 years, further sealing it from the open Gulf of Mexico. Presently, the modern Mississippi River bypasses the estuarine environment and only contributes sediments during flood events when the river overtops the levee system. Sea-level rise, subsidence within the Holocene delta-plain deposits, and movement along numerous fault systems are the active natural processes that continue to affect basin geomorphology.