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Reconstructing the Sediment History of

Pescadero Lagoon
David Abram, David Clarke, Edward Jordan and Philip Salmon

The evolution of Pescadero Lagoon was reconstructed in terms of
relative sea level rise and how this has altered the distribution of
environments within the catchment. Sediment stratigraphy was
sampled by gouge coring and examined using the Troels-Smith
classification scheme. Magnetic susceptibility tracing was applied to
further clarify sediment provenance. Our results show a transition
from a terrestrial- to a marine-dominated depositional environment
and suggest that tectonic subsidence has acted significantly on the

Introduction and Objectives

Lagoons have been defined as coastal water bodies which are
physically separated, to a greater or lesser extent, from the ocean by a
strip of land (Ward and Ashley, 1989). Lagoon sediments contain
information about past land and sea interaction, the impact that
humans can have on sediment delivery rate, where the sediment has
originated from and what processes have instigated sediment delivery
and deposition (Carter, 1988). Our aim was to retrieve and classify
sediments from a California coastal lagoon in order to reconstruct the Figure 1. Site Map of Pescadero Lagoon
history of Pescadero Lagoons evolution.
Study site
Research Methods
Our investigation site was Pescadero Lagoon (Figure 1), which is a
coastal barrier lagoon separated from the Pacific Ocean by a sand bar Hand-driven auger corers were used to retrieve sediment samples on
which is opened intermittently. Pescadero Lagoon was selected as the Pescadero Marsh. Progress proved to be much slower than on the pilot
site as it has not been subject to investigation by previous groups project site resulting in the proposed grid of cores being abandoned in
from The University of Liverpool unlike many of the water bodies in favour of two distinct transects moving consecutively inland and away
closer proximity to Santa Cruz. We felt that this would contribute to from Pescadero Creek. For the majority of our time in the field two corers
the knowledge of past coastal environments in the area. A lagoon was were simultaneously in use. The two coring groups leapfrogged each
considered favourable to a lake as it would reveal information about other along each transect. Findings were regularly compared between
past oceanic activity as well as terrestrial sedimentation. Sediment is cores confirming the spacing to adequately correlate the encountered
derived partly from fluvial runoff from the surrounding slopes of the stratigraphy.
catchment. Pescadero Creek provides the main terrestrial source of Coring was initiated immediately south of the lagoonal water body
sediment that is deposited in and around the lagoon. The ocean also indicated on the map (see figure 1) and adjacent to the drainage channel
has an influence on the deposited sediment as tidal waters regularly running out of Pescadero Creek. A transect of thirteen cores spaced at 15
enter the lagoon and higher energy events can break over the sand metre intervals was completed at a bearing of 076. A second transect of
barrier and flood into the lagoon. six cores was completed on the southern side of the channel at a bearing of
Objectives 128.

We expected past changes in the local land use predominantly Each horizon encountered was measured, recorded and subjected to
mining, logging and grazing associated with the gold rush era, to analysis and ranking in accordance with the categories of the Troels-Smith
have affected and influenced the rate and type of sediment delivered (1955) classification scheme. Colours were allocated from the Munsell
to the lagoon area (Mayers, 2001). These changes in land use would chart and anything else of significance within a horizon was noted.
have increased the local soils vulnerability to erosion (Morgan, Samples were taken from every horizon of a core on each transect for
2005). We hoped to be able to identify a gold rush transition in the magnetic susceptibility testing. These cores were chosen randomly with
sediment stratigraphy. We also expected to find intrusions to the the only prerequisite being that they were at least six metres deep. Soil
stratigraphic pattern related to extreme hydrological events on land samples were retrieved from all possible areas of the lagoon catchment and
and at sea (e.g. Schwartz et al., 1986). Identifiable changes between the beach as potential sediment source supplies. Magnetic susceptibility
terrestrial and marine dominated sediments in our cores could also be tracing was undertaken, using a Bartington meter, on full pots of samples
due to changes in the relative sea level (Cooper, 1994). Magnetic from core material and catchment soils providing measurements by
susceptibility testing was employed to attempt to identify the sources volume rather than mass. High and low frequency values were recorded.
of the different sediments encountered to aid our understanding of the
lagoons evolution.
Our main objective was to sample the stratigraphy of Pescadero Results
Lagoon and to outline and identify any fluvial, marine and possibly Mud flat: These are the closest depositional environment to the ocean,
any human impacts on sediment delivery to the investigation site. By areas of unvegetated land that are regularly inundated by the ocean. This
analysing each horizon we hoped to be able to tell where sediment environment deposits sediment as the sea advances onto the land, slows
came from and how it was formed. Once cores were completed, down and deposits sediment at the turn of the tide. Mud flat depositional
stratigraphic diagrams were created and simplified to represent the environments indicate increased proximity to the ocean as either sea level
major properties discovered in the sediment. From these, the pattern has risen or the land has subsided to allow regular inundation of marine
of coastal evolution could be interpreted. water. Sediments of this depositional environment were characterised by

grey-brown clay/silt deposits and regularly associated with shells to the channel this sand band is thicker and underlaid by sediment
which were clearly of marine origin. indicative of particularly high energy unsorted deposits such as those of a
former tidal channel or a marine storm. This could represent a former
Salt marsh: These develop from a mud flat environment as an location of the channel which has since migrated or diminished to its
altitudinal threshold is passed relative to sea level when the tide less present position. Across transect one towards the landward end, the sand
frequently submerges the tidal flat. Salt marsh is below high water intrusion becomes thinner and divides into smaller discrete horizons. At
level but emergent for at least a portion of the tidal cycle. A transition the extreme inland end this high energy band is only just still present. The
from mud flat to salt marsh suggests either a fall in sea level, a high energy component of these cores appears to be an interruption to the
tectonic rise of the land or an increase in sedimentation rates pattern of sedimentation and likely to be related to regular channel over
reclaiming land and allowing colonization by halophytic plant wash the influence of which is diminished with distance.
species. Sediments characteristic of this environment included peat,
often prominently laminated. Here, sediment comes from both marine The pattern of stratigraphy encountered along transect two was
and terrestrial sources but is dominated by in situ organic mater. fundamentally similar to that of transect one but subtle physical
differences between the sites has resulted in some variations to the manner
Flood plain: This environment is indicative of a stable terrestrial in which sediment accretion has reflected the past environment. Site two
environment with fluvial processes depositing alluvial material was slightly elevated relative to site one. Although the depths correlated
derived from within the catchment. Terrestrial floods are dominant poorly, this was most likely due to local topography. Here, a clear flood
with the marine influence small or non existent. Sediments are plain environment was represented at the greatest depth of the deeper
mainly terriginous river sourced, consisting mainly of clay/silt cores. Again the majority of the upper cores were dominated by mud flat
characterised by a green tinge and regular gypsum deposits formed sediments, however on site two the mud flat environment was replaced
by diagenesis. intermittently and periodically by salt marsh. Transect two cores all
The high energy deposits encountered are not indicative of a specific featured salt marsh sediments at their upper limits and the site remains salt
depositional environment rather of high energy events such as marsh at present. The influence of the high energy events appears to be
tsunamis, marine or terrestrial floods and barrier breaching: restricted greatly on transect two in relation to transect one. A thin band of
high energy sands cuts across the cores at ~1.5m depth. Again this band
High energy event: Sediments that are characterised by sand and thins out toward the landward end of transect two. Here, there appears to
small stones of either a marine or terrestrial source. be little evidence of former channel meanders which supports the theory
Extreme high energy event/tidal channel: These environments are that this site is less susceptible to high energy inundation.
represented by unsorted high energy deposits ranging from sands to Magnetic Properties
large stones and wood. The location of these deposits could imply
that they represent the former path of a tidal channel. Magnetics - Source Material


River Hillslope Forest Beach Barrier Estuary






-0.200.00 50.00 100.00 150.00 200.00 250.00 300.00

Low Frequency

Figure 3. Frequency-dependent and magnetic susceptibility plot for the

source material.

Magnetics Transects 1 and 2

Figure 2. Schematic diagram of depositional environments


Description of stratigraphy TRANSECT1 TRANSECT2

As displayed in the stratigraphic diagrams (Fig. 2) the sediment
retrieved from the greatest depth along transect one was indicative of 1.80

a flood plain depositional environment. This was the only sediment

encountered beyond 7m depth at the bottom of our deepest cores. 1.30

Above this floodplain horizon around 1m of mudflat sediments was

observed before the core reverted to floodplain sediment for another
discrete section of just under one metre in thickness. This band of 0.30
floodplain sediment was clearly traceable across the final four and
deepest cores of transect one. Here, the correlation was strongly -0.200.00 50.00 100.00 150.00 200.00 250.00 300.00

supported by depth along with gypsum deposits and a green tinge to

the sediment. Above this flood plain band and continuing throughout -0.70
Low Frequency
the cores mud flat sediments are dominant. At the top of the cores
some thin salt marsh sediments are evident reflecting the modern salt
marsh environment. It is likely that human anchoring of the lagoon
barrier has resulted in the recent change to stable salt marsh. High Figure 4. Frequency-dependent and magnetic susceptibility plot for core
energy deposits interrupt the mud flat sediments significantly samples.
between 1 and 5m depth. At the seaward end of transect one nearest

The plot of frequency-dependent vs magnetic susceptibility for The general pattern consistent up and across both transects cores reflect a
transect one samples (Figure 4) shows very little correspondence with move from terrestrial flood plain sediments to a mud flat environment.
the magnetic properties of the source materials (Figure 3). As the This tells us that at the point of change, sea level has risen relative to the
material we sampled was collected from every strategic point around transect sites. This has resulted in a transition to an environment subject to
the lagoon, it shows that the core material is clearly derived from a regular inundation from tidal water and sedimentation of marine origin.
different source. This is true of the material that has a frequency- Prior to this change in sea level, the area was part of the terrestial
dependent susceptibility above 0.3 Fd% suggesting that the material floodplain system. The transition occurs at approximately 5 metres, when
has been transported from either an offshore cores achieved this depth, uniformly across the cores of transect one and
less ordered but roughly correlating with transect two.

to this change in sea level the area was part of the terrestrial

Figure 5. Simplified stratigraphy diagrams (Transect 1 on the right

and Transect 2 on the left)
location or further up the valley. This is true of the samples at depths:
23cm, 76cm, 145cm, 168cm, 177cm, 230cm, 298cm, 380cm, 420cm
and 600cm. When compared to the stratigraphy diagram these points Using sediment accretion rates from Mudie and Byrne (1980) this
only occur in the mudflat deposits which would be expected as this transition equates to around 1,800 years BP. The two deepest cores,
indicates that the influence is marine. numbers 11 and 13 of transect one, record an earlier transition of the same
nature suggesting that before the area changed in the long term to mud
Samples from depths of 230cm, 238cm, 420cm, 500cm, 600cm and flats, sea level had already risen briefly but had then fallen again. This first
640cm all bear a resemblance to some of the source material samples recorded change from a floodplain to a mud flat environment and then
that were collected from the beach. All but one of these correlate back seems improbable in the context of the time period and processes
with the stratigraphy diagram as they are all located within a mudflat affecting Pescadero, as discussed below. A sudden sea level rise during the
environment expected to be marine sourced. The measurement at period of time the cores cover is probable, however a sudden and dramatic
600cm does not match with the stratigraphy diagram as the sediment sea level fall capable of reverting a mud flat environment back to an
here is interpreted as being from a floodplain environment. alluvial floodplain with no transition is less likely unless driven by co-
seismic uplift. However, beyond ~6 metres depth our boreholes often
The samples taken from core one bear little resemblance to the appeared to divert and re-core sediment which had already been retrieved.
catchment material and very few similarities can be observed, This has possibly created the impression of two transitions from floodplain
suggesting that most of the material that has been deposited at to mud flat environments when, in reality only, one existed. However a
transect one has been marine-derived. natural processed-based explanation may yet be applicable such as tectonic
Transect 2 contains samples that correlates with the barrier source uplift (Pirazzoli, 1986). The second more definitive sea level rise observed
material. The sample that is at a depth of 462cm in transect 2 core 5, is clearly recorded across the majority of cores. This has resulted in the
is located within a mudflat and correlates with a barrier sediment. At persistence of a more marine environment right through to the present day.
a depth of 495.5cm, the sample compares to a source material of a The uppermost sediments of most cores show thin bands of salt marsh
beach or flood plain sediment material. As this sample is located sediments. The brief appearance of these saltmarsh sediments suggest that
within a saltmarsh sediment band, it is possible that it could be recently, even on human timescales, the area has emerged enough to allow
sourced from both end-members. Again there are very few saltmarsh vegetation to grow on both sites reflecting a modern change to a
correlations that can be drawn between the source and core material stable salt marsh environment which is likely to reflect recent human
magnetic properties. Those that can be seen do serve to support a activity. The arrival of Euro-Americans and more specifically the gold
marine origin for much material found from the past environments rush era saw dramatic land use change in central coastal California from
encountered in our cores. around 1850 onwards (Mayers, 2001). Logging and ranching dramatically
increased the alluvial sediment delivered to Pescadero Lagoon in terms of
bed and wash load. Any dynamic equilibrium between deposition, erosion
Discussion and sea level would have been disrupted allowing extension of saltmarsh
habitat. Recent maintenance of drainage channel levees and anchorage of
the lagoon barrier would also provide a steady, less marine influenced
environment also encouraging sediment accretion, emergence and material was encountered next to the channel on site one below the high
encroachment by salt marsh vegetation. energy deposits suggesting that this could represent a former section of the
channel bed from which the channel has subsequently migrated.
The change in relative sea level could be due to natural sea level rise
breaching a catchment threshold as global sea level is currently Given more time the study could have been improved using diatom
understood to be either gradually rising or oscillating since achieving analyses to further clarify the nature of past environments recorded in
relative stability ~ 6,000 ya following the onset of the Holocene sediment. Diatom ecology could reveal the salinity of the environment past
(Tooley, 1978). However we believe this to be due to localised assemblages lived in and, therefore, the level of marine influence at that
sinking of the coastline (cf. Pirazzoli, 1986). The pattern encountered time. More exhaustive sampling of catchment soils would benefit our
on transect two is the reason for this. After the discussed relative sea magnetic results, however the possibility of this was limited by private
level rise the pattern of sedimentation is distinctly different between land ownership and risk factors of the local terrain. Magnetic samples
our two sites. Site one remains a tidal mud flat environment until the would also benefit from being dried before analysis this was not a practical
recent invasion of salt marsh where as site two cores generally appear possibility in light of the resources available to us. Laboratory testing of
to show brief transitions to salt marsh before the environment was grain size from core samples could possibly reveal more about human
sharply reverted to mudflat. The salt marsh horizons appear to be impacts on sedimentation but this to proved impractical in the field.
more prominent at the landward end of the transect where the marine
influence would be smallest. This is most likely due to sediment
gradually accumulating on the mud flats until salt marsh vegetation is Conclusions
established and then tectonic activity causing local subsidence
resulting in the suite of environments described moving inland in The sediments encountered at Pescadero reveal a transition from
response to encroachment by the ocean, i.e. a balance between terrestrially dominated to marine dominated depositional
eustatic sea-level change and tectonic trends. The sediment horizons environment probably driven by sea level rise.
suggesting these processes were clear bands of stratified peat with
The stratigraphy was divisible into four major components: mud
sharp upper boundaries overlain by mud flat sediments.
flat, salt marsh and flood plain environments and high energy
A study by Koehler et al. (unpublished), working for the USGS, on event deposits.
lagoonal sediments from Pillar Point Marsh roughly 30 kilometres up
The sequences encountered were responses to sea level rise,
the coast north west of Pescadero describes strikingly similar patterns
tectonic subsidence and sedimentation.
of thick buried peat deposits over laid by muds. This pattern is
explicitly linked to sudden subsidence due to tectonic activity along The site of transect one has been more exposed to high energy
the San Gregorio Fault which encompasses both Pillar Point and events and oceanic influence within the catchment than that of
Pescadero Marsh. Where as the Santa Cruz area regularly experiences transect two.
uplift due to the activity of the San Andreas transform fault
(Pirazzoli, 1986), Pescadero appears to have regularly sunk in
response to the activity of the San Gregorio Fault. The pattern could Acknowledgements
also be due to gradual sea level rise causing a migration of the lagoon
system inland however the sharp transitions from saltmarsh to We would like to thank Joanne Kerbavaz and George Gray of the
mudflat sediments suggests that tectonic processes are the driving California State Parks office for kind permission to core at Pescadero
force. Marsh.
Transect one does not reveal transitions to a saltmarsh environment
between the initial sea level rise and the present day. Instead the
environment remains consistently mud flat but shows the site to be
heavily influenced by high energy events due to large sandy Bird, E. C. F. (1984) Coasts, Third Edition. Blackwell.
intrusions. On the seaward end of transect one which was also nearest Carter, R.W.G. (1988) Coastal Environments. London: Academic
to the tidal channel the sand intrusion was thick and impenetrable Press.
becoming thinner with distance from the bank as the sediment Cooper, J. A. G. (1994) Lagoons and microtidal coasts. In: Carter, R. W.
carrying capacity of the over wash reduced rapidly with distance. The G. & Woodroffe, C. D. Eds. Coastal Evolution: Late Quaternary
tidal channel was evidently subject to regular over wash during flood Shoreline Morphodynamics. Cambridge University Press.
events although the origin of this material was not resolved by our Koehler, R. D., Witter, R. C., Simpson, G. D., Hemphill-Hayley, E.
magnetics. This material classified as high energy event appeared to and Lettis, W. R. (2004) Paleoseismic Investigation of the Northern
be deposited in an orderly fashion generally graded from coarser San Gregorio Fault, Half Moon Bay [Online: Last Accessed
grains and some small stones becoming finer towards the top of the 4/05/05] http://erp-
band. This suggests that terrestrial flooding was largely responsible
for these deposits due to the classic sinusoidal curve of intensity. Mayers, C. (2001) An Environmental History of Recent Human and
Climatic Impacts on Central Coastal California: the Record from Pinto
The sand intrusion on site one thins out to a thin band at
Lake, Santa Cruz County. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of
approximately 2 metres depth at the landward end of transect one. As
this is over 200 metres from the channel bank it appears that a
Morgan, R.P.C. (2005) Soil Erosion and Conservation. Third Edition.
particularly high energy terrestrial flood occurred at this time. This is
Blackwell Publishing
also recorded on site two where a thin band of graded sand appeared
Mudie, P. J. & Byrne, R. (1980) Pollen evidence for historic
across the transect again at 2 metres depth. Transect two appears to
sedimentation rates in Californian coastal marshes. Estuarine and
be less exposed to flooding within the catchment than transect one as
Coastal Marine Science 10: 305-316.
it appears to have recorded only large scale high energy events.
Pirazzoli, P. A. (1986) Tectonic Shorelines In: Carter, R. W. G. &
Transect two appeared to be elevated relative to site one this extra
Woodroffe, C. D. Eds., 1994, Coastal Evolution: Late Quaternary
height above sea level could explain the lack of more high energy
Shoreline Morphodynamics. Cambridge University Press
deposits and more importantly the saltmarsh episodes occurring here
Schwartz, D.L., Mullins, H.T. and Belknap, D.F. (1986) Holocene
but not on site one as this site was less affected by sea level rise.
geologic history of a transform margin estuary: Elkhorn Slough,
Alternatively, differential tectonic uplift patterns may account for this
Central California. Academic Press Inc. (London) Limited.
spatial disparity.
Thompson, R. and Oldfield, F. (1986) Environmental Magnetism. Allen
The material labelled tidal channel/extreme high energy event was & Unwin, London
less graded and significantly larger in grain size than the high energy Tooley, M. J. (1978) Interpretation of Holocene sea-level changes.
deposits. Not enough of this material was encountered to strongly Geologiska Foreningens i Stockholm Forhandlingar, 100 (2), 203-212.
imply an extreme event such as a tsunami in our cores, however this Troels-Smith, J. (1955) Karakterising af lose jordater. Danm. Geol.
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