The relative contribution of peat compaction and oxidation to subsidence in built-up areas in the Rhine-Meuse delta, The Netherlands

Sanneke van Asselen*, Gilles Erkens, Esther Stouthamer, Hessel A.G. Woolderink, Rebecca E.E. Geeraert, Mariet M. Hefting

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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An increasing number of people lives in coastal zones with a subsurface consisting of heterogenic soft-soil sequences. Many of these sequences contain substantial amounts of peat. While population growth and urbanization continues in coastal zones, they are threatened by global sea-level rise and land subsidence. Peat compaction and oxidation, caused by loading and drainage, are important contributors to land subsidence, and hence relative sea-level rise, in peat-rich coastal zones. Especially built-up areas, having densely-spaced urban assets, are heavily impacted by land subsidence, in terms of livelihoods and damage-related costs. Yet, built-up areas have been largely avoided in peat compaction and oxidation field studies. Consequently, essential information on the relative contributions of both processes to total subsidence and underlying mechanisms, which is required for developing effective land use planning strategies, is lacking. Therefore, we quantified subsidence due to peat compaction and oxidation in built-up areas in the Rhine-Meuse delta, The Netherlands, using lithological borehole data and measurements of dry bulk density, organic matter, and CO 2 respiration. We reconstructed subsidence over the last 1000 years of up to ~4 m, and recent subsidence rates of up to ~140 mm·yr −1 averaged over an 11-year time span. The amount and rate of subsidence due to peat compaction and oxidation is variable in time and space, depending on the Holocene sequence composition, overburden thickness, loading time, organic-matter content, and groundwater-table depth. In our study area, the potential for future subsidence due to peat compaction and oxidation is substantial, especially where the peat layer occurs at shallow depth and is relatively uncompacted. We expect this is the case for many peat-rich coastal zones worldwide. We propose to use subsurface-based spatial planning, using specific subsurface information mentioned above, to inform land use planners about the most optimal building sites in organo-clastic coastal zones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-191
Number of pages15
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date25 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2018


This research has been funded by the Future Deltas research program, Utrecht University . Additionally, we thank the Deltares Research Institute for a fruitful cooperation, as well as for funding respirometer measurements. We thank J.A. Keuskamp for his comments on the calculations and interpretation of basal respiration data. We also thank the Municipalities Woerden and Stichtse Vecht for their support. The data used for this research may be found in the tables, figures, references and supplementary information.

FundersFunder number
Deltares Research Institute
Universiteit Utrecht


    • Coastal zone
    • Land subsidence
    • Peat compaction
    • Peat oxidation


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