The urbanised peat-rich coastal-deltaic plain of the Netherlands is severely subsiding due to human-induced phreatic groundwater level lowering, as this causes peat layers to compress and oxidise. To determine the potential susceptibility of this area to future subsidence by peat compression and oxidation, the effects of lowering present-day phreatic groundwater levels were quantitatively evaluated using a subsidence model. Input were a 3D geological subsurface voxel-model, modelled phreatic groundwater levels, and functions for peat compression and oxidation. Phreatic groundwater levels were lowered by 0.25 and 0.5m, and the resulting peat compression and oxidation over periods of 15 and 30 years were determined. The model area comprised the major cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and their surrounding agricultural lands.
The results revealed that for these scenarios agricultural areas may subside between 0.3 and 0.8m; potential subsidence in Amsterdam and Rotterdam is considerably lower, less than 0.4m. This is due to the presence of several metres thick anthropogenic brought-up soils overlying the peat below the urban areas, which has already compressed the peat to a depth below groundwater level, and thus minimises further compression and oxidation. In agricultural areas peat is often situated near the surface, and is therefore highly compressible and prone to oxidation. The averaged subsidence rates for the scenarios range between 7 and 13mma−1, which is corresponds to present-day rates of subsidence in the peat areas of the Netherlands. These results contrast with the trend of coastal-deltaic subsidence in other deltas, with cities subsiding faster than agricultural areas. This difference is explained by the driver of subsidence: in other deltas, subsidence of urban areas is mainly due to deep aquifer extraction, whereas in the Netherlands subsidence is due to phreatic groundwater level lowering.