skip to main content

Title: Vertical Saltwater Intrusion in Coastal Aquifers Driven by Episodic Flooding: A Review

Low‐elevation coastal areas are increasingly vulnerable to seawater flooding as sea levels rise and the frequency and intensity of large storms increase with climate change. Seawater flooding can lead to the salinization of fresh coastal aquifers by vertical saltwater intrusion (SWI). Vertical SWI is often overlooked in coastal zone threat assessments despite the risk it poses to critical freshwater resources and salt‐intolerant ecosystems that sustain coastal populations. This review synthesizes field and modeling approaches for investigating vertical SWI and the practical and theoretical understanding of salinization and flushing processes obtained from prior studies. The synthesis explores complex vertical SWI dynamics that are influenced by density‐dependent flow and oceanic, hydrologic, geologic, climatic, and anthropogenic forcings acting on coastal aquifers across spatial and temporal scales. Key knowledge gaps, management challenges, and research opportunities are identified to help advance our understanding of the vulnerability of fresh coastal groundwater. Past modeling studies often focus on idealized aquifer systems, and thus future work could consider more diverse geologic, climatic, and topographic environments. Concurrent field and modeling programs should be sustained over time to capture interactions between physical processes, repeated salinization and flushing events, and delayed aquifer responses. Finally, this review highlights the need for improved coordination and knowledge translation across disciplines (e.g., coastal engineering, hydrogeology, oceanography, social science) to gain a more holistic understanding of vertical SWI. There also needs to be more education of communities, policy makers, and managers to motivate societal action to address coastal groundwater vulnerability in a changing climate.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
DOI PREFIX: 10.1029
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Water Resources Research
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Coastal agricultural zones are experiencing salinization due to accelerating rates of sea-level rise, causing reduction in crop yields and abandonment of farmland. Understanding mechanisms and drivers of this seawater intrusion (SWI) is key to mitigating its effects and predicting future vulnerability of groundwater resources to salinization. We implemented a monitoring network of pressure and specific conductivity (SC) sensors in wells and surface waters to target marsh-adjacent agricultural areas in greater Dover, Delaware. Recorded water levels and SC over a period of three years show that the mechanisms and timescales of SWI are controlled by local hydrology, geomorphology, and geology. Monitored wells did not indicate widespread salinization of deep groundwater in the surficial aquifer. However, monitored surface water bodies and shallow (<4m deep) wells did show SC fluctuations due to tides and storm events, in one case leading to salinization of deeper (18m deep) groundwater. Seasonal peaks in SC occurred during late summer months. Seasonal and interannual variation of SC was also influenced by relative sea level. The data collected in this study data highlight the mechanisms by which surface water-groundwater connections lead to salinization of aquifers inland, before SWI is detected in deeper groundwater nearer the coastline. Sharing of our data with stakeholders has led to the implementation of SWI mitigation efforts, illustrating the importance of strategic monitoring and stakeholder engagement to support coastal resilience. 
    more » « less
  2. null (Ed.)
    Beach aquifers, located in the subsurface of sandy beaches, are unique ecosystems with steep chemical and physical gradients resulting from the mixing of terrestrial fresh groundwater and saline groundwater from the sea. While work has rapidly progressed to understand the physics and chemistry in this environment, much less is known about the microorganisms present despite the fact that they are responsible for vital biogeochemical processes. This paper presents a review of the current state of knowledge of microbes within beach aquifers and the mechanisms that control the beach aquifer microbiome. We review literature describing the distribution and diversity of microorganisms in the freshwater-saltwater mixing zone of beach aquifers, and identify just 12 papers. We highlight knowledge gaps, as well as future research directions: The understanding of beach aquifer microorganisms is informed primarily by 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequences. Metagenomics and metatranscriptomics have not yet been applied but are promising approaches for elucidating key metabolic and ecological roles of microbes in this environment. Additionally, variability in field sampling and analytical methods restrict comparison of data across studies and geographic locations. Further, documented evidence on the migration of microbes within the beach aquifer is limited. Taking into account the physical transport of microbes through sand by flowing groundwater may be critical for understanding the structure and dynamics of microbial communities. Quantitative measurements of rates of elemental cycling in the context of microbial diversity need further investigation, in order to understand the roles of microbes in mediating biogeochemical fluxes from the beach aquifer to the coastal ocean. Lastly, understanding the current state of beach aquifers in regulating carbon stocks is critical to foster a better understanding of the contribution of the beach aquifer microbiome to global climate models. 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Knowledge of coastal groundwater flow is critical for managing coastal groundwater resources and quantifying submarine groundwater discharge (SGD), but this flow occurs over multiple scales that can be difficult to study in an integrated way. We designed a field and modeling study to investigate groundwater flow and the distribution of salinity during sea level rise in a domain that included beaches, salt marshes and the first major confined aquifer, which reached 10–15 km offshore. Numerical models were based on the flat‐lying, passive margin coastline of North Inlet, SC, and were constrained by field studies including subsurface resistivity surveys and hydraulic head observations. Simulations that included tidal fluctuations showed that the salt marsh generated more than three times as much SGD as the beach and inner shelf, per unit length of coastline. Groundwater exchange between scales was small, suggesting that physical fluxes of groundwater can be considered independently at different scales. However, salinization of the first major confined aquifer occurred by downward transport from overlying aquifers rather than intrusion from the seaward end, suggesting that studies of aquifer salinization should consider multiscale flow. During simulated sea level rise, fresh‐to‐brackish groundwater persisted in the first confined aquifer as far as the seaward end of the overlying confining unit, 10–20 km offshore. Total fluxes of SGD decreased significantly with future sea level rise, dominated by declining SGD in the salt marsh, and portending a marked decline in the flux of nutrients and carbon to estuaries and the coastal ocean.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Preferential flow can result in rapid contamination of groundwater resources. This is particularly true in aquifers with connected, high permeability geologic structures and in coastal systems where the oceanic source of contamination is ubiquitous. We consider saltwater intrusion due to pumping in volcanic aquifers with lava tubes represented as connected high‐K structures and compare salinization responses to those of heterogeneous aquifers with different structure and equivalent homogeneous systems. Three‐dimensional simulations of variable‐density groundwater flow and salt transport show that conduits formed by lava flows create preferential groundwater flow in volcanic aquifers. These conduits allow fresh groundwater to extend further offshore than in other systems. However, onshore pumping causes saltwater to migrate landward quickly through the conduits relative to the other models, resulting in more severe saltwater intrusion, particularly at shallow depths. The geometry of geologic heterogeneity in volcanic aquifers leads to increased risk of salinization of fresh groundwater as well as substantial uncertainty due to significant spatial variation in saltwater intrusion. The findings illustrate the importance of considering geologic heterogeneity in assessing the vulnerability of coastal freshwater resources in volcanic and other aquifers with connected high‐permeability geologic structures.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Future increases in the frequency of tidal flooding due to sea level rise (SLR) are likely to affect pore water salinities in coastal aquifers. In this study, we investigate the impact of increased tidal flooding frequency on salinity and flow dynamics in coastal aquifers using numerical variable‐density variably‐saturated groundwater flow and salt transport models. Short (sub‐daily) and long (decadal) period tides are combined with SLR projections to drive continuous 80‐year models of flow and salt transport. Results show that encroaching intertidal zones lead to both periodic and long‐term vertical salinization of the upper aquifer. Salinization of the upper aquifer due to tidal flooding forces the lower interface seaward, even under SLR. System dynamics are controlled by the interplay between SLR and long period tidal forcing associated with perigean spring tides and the 18.6‐year lunar nodal cycle. Periodic tidal flooding substantially enhances intertidal saltwater‐freshwater mixing, resulting in a 6‐ to 10‐fold expansion of the intertidal saltwater‐freshwater mixing area across SLR scenarios. The onset of the expansion coincides with extreme high water levels resulting from lunar nodal cycling of tidal constituent amplitudes. The findings are the first to demonstrate the combined effects of gradual SLR and short and long period tides on aquifer salinity distributions, and reveal competing influences of SLR on saltwater intrusion. The results are likely to have important implications for coastal ocean chemical fluxes and groundwater resources as tidal flooding intensifies worldwide.

    more » « less