Storm-driven groundwater flow in a salt marsh

Alicia M. Wilson, Willard S. Moore, Samantha B. Joye, Joseph L. Anderson, Charles A. Schutte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Storms can cause significant groundwater flow in coastal settings, but prior studies of the effects of storms on groundwater flow and transport have largely focused on very large storms and used salinity as a tracer. We have little information about the effects of smaller storms on coastal flow and how storm-induced variability affects key tidal wetlands like salt marshes, which may remain saline throughout a storm. Here we show that even the distant passage of a moderate storm can strongly increase groundwater flow and transport in salt marsh ecosystems and adjacent barrier islands. Groundwater monitoring and radium isotope tracer analyses revealed significant influx of saline creek water into the confined aquifer below the marsh platform, driven by storm surge. This pulse of fluids reached depths exceeding 5 m, and surge-enhanced tides propagated through the aquifer to affect flow in the upland >100 m from the creek bank. Groundwater discharge from the marsh varied significantly prior to the storm, doubling during inundating tides compared to a period of noninundating neap tides. Storm surge then caused groundwater discharge to decline ∼50% compared to similar inundating tides. Ra- and nutrient-poor creek water that entered the confined aquifer below the marsh was quickly enriched in nutrients and carbon, even on 12 h tidal cycles, so that nutrient discharge was likely proportional to groundwater discharge. Storm-related flow could also drive significant contaminant discharge from developed coastlines. The enhanced transport and variability observed here likely affected hundreds of kilometers of the coastline impacted by the storm.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberW02535
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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