Collaborative Research: Estuarine Response to Climate Forcing

Project: Research project

Project Details


An investigation into the causes of interannual variability in estuarine salinity, stratification and circulation will be conducted using salinity observations, statistical methods, realistic 3-Dimensional hydrodynamic models, and simplified 2-Dimensional numerical models. The overall objective is to quantify interannual variability of estuarine circulation, stratification, and salinity, to explain the physical mechanisms responsible for such variability, and provide an assessment of the likely changes in these metrics in response to future climate change. Observational analysis and 3-Dimensional modeling will be focused on Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, for which (a) extensive salinity databases exist, and (b) a robust numerical model has been developed and validated. Process-oriented modeling studies will be conducted to examine how the estuaries respond to interannual variability in river runoff and shelf salinity, sea-level rise and potential changes in tidal and wind mixing. Multiple model hindcasts will be conducted in which the individual impacts of interannual variability in open-ocean sea level, river flow, shelf salinity, and meteorological forcing are assessed. Statistical models will be applied to the historical salinity data to investigate how salt intrusion length and estuarine stratification vary with river flow, shelf salinity and sea level rise. Projections of future climate impacts on these estuaries will be made by using the regional output of state-of-the art climate models that have been extensively evaluated for the Mid-Atlantic region. General insights into the sensitivity of estuarine physical processes to climate variability and change will be afforded by (1) the differing physics of Chesapeake Bay (partially mixed) and Delaware Bay (well mixed); (2) process oriented and realistic 3-Dimensional modeling studies; and (3) configuration of 2-Dimensional semi-analytical models over a large parameter space of river flow, tidal velocity amplitude, and estuarine geometry.

Intellectual Merit. Much of current estuarine research focuses on relatively short time scales (tidal, weather-related, and seasonal). Little is known of interannual variability in estuarine salinity, stratification, and circulation. The inevitability of sea-level rise and climate change demands a rigorous, physically based approach for quantifying their impacts. This project addresses that need with a collaborative effort between two teams with complementary expertise in numerical modeling, estuarine dynamics, climate change impacts, and time-series analysis.

Broader Impacts. This research project will impact the broader community of estuarine scientists and coastal managers as it will better quantify the potential impacts of climate change on estuarine salinity and stratification, factors that greatly influence water quality and the sustainability of living resources such as oysters and crabs. The long-term model simulations and analysis products will be made available to the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay management communities as they prepare for the impacts of climate change. Results will also be communicated to a broad range of stakeholders, including the general public, through several climate assessment activities underway in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Because the modeling and data analysis approaches developed here can be applied to any estuary, and because we will utilize simplified 2-Dimensional model to provide insights about the potential impacts of climate change on a broad class of estuaries, the impacts of the work extend beyond Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Educational impacts of the proposal are through the support of graduate and post-doctoral research at the interface of the disciplines of estuarine dynamics and climate change.

Effective start/end date6/15/105/31/15


  • National Science Foundation: $331,155.00


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