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Seasonal oscillations in water exchange between aquifers and the coastal ocean


Ground water of both terrestrial and marine origin flows into coastal surface waters as submarine groundwater discharge, and constitutes an important source of nutrients, contaminants and trace elements to the coastal ocean1,2,3,4,5. Large saline discharges have been observed by direct measurements3,6,7,8,9,10 and inferred from geochemical tracers11,12,13, but sufficient seawater inflow has not been observed to balance this outflow. Geochemical tracers also suggest a time lag between changes in submarine groundwater discharge rates12,14 and the seasonal oscillations of inland recharge that drive groundwater flow towards the coast. Here we use measurements of hydraulic gradients and offshore fluxes taken at Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts, together with a modelling study of a generalized coastal groundwater system to show that a shift in the freshwater–saltwater interface—controlled by seasonal changes in water table elevation—can explain large saline discharges that lag inland recharge cycles. We find that sea water is drawn into aquifers as the freshwater–saltwater interface moves landward during winter, and discharges back into coastal waters as the interface moves seaward in summer. Our results demonstrate the connection between the seasonal hydrologic cycle inland and the saline groundwater system in coastal aquifers, and suggest a potentially important seasonality in the chemical loading of coastal waters.

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Figure 1: Saline groundwater circulation in a simple coastal groundwater system with a Ghyben–Herzberg interface.
Figure 2: Simulated total fresh and saline fluxes across the sea floor per metre length of shoreline.
Figure 3: Submarine groundwater discharge into Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts.


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We thank the WBNERR staff and the many MIT and WHOI faculty and students, USGS personnel, and others who assisted in the field. This work was supported by a graduate research fellowship from the US National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Charles F. Harvey.

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Supplementary Notes

This provides further numerical modelling results and additional data and analysis from the field site at Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts. The material is organized as one Supplementary Table and 12 Supplementary Figures: numerical modeling (Supplementary Table S1 and Supplementary Figures S1–S5), conceptualization (Supplementary Figure 6), field instrumentation (Supplementary Figure S8), and field site (Supplementary Figures S7 and S9–S12). (PDF 949 kb)

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Michael, H., Mulligan, A. & Harvey, C. Seasonal oscillations in water exchange between aquifers and the coastal ocean. Nature 436, 1145–1148 (2005).

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