Along-Shore Movement of Groundwater and Its Effects on Seawater-Groundwater Interactions in Heterogeneous Coastal Aquifers

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Water Resources Research
Studies of coastal groundwater dynamics often assume two-dimensional (2D) flow and transport along a shore-perpendicular cross-section. We show that along-shore movement of groundwater may also be significant in heterogeneous coastal aquifers. Simulations of groundwater flow and salt transport incorporating different geologic structure show highly three-dimensional (3D) preferential flow paths. The along-shore movement of groundwater on average accounts for 40%–50% of the total flowpath length in both conduit-type (e.g., volcanic) heterogeneous aquifers and statistically equivalent (e.g., deltaic) systems generated with sequential indicator simulation (SIS). Our results identify a critical role of three-dimensionality in systems with connected high-permeability geological features. 3D conduit features connecting land and sea cause more terrestrial groundwater flow through the inland boundary and intensify water exchange along the land-sea interface. Therefore, conduits increase the rate of SGD compared to equivalent homogeneous, SIS and corresponding 2D models. In contrast, in SIS-type systems, less-connected high-permeability features produce mixing zones and SGD nearer to shore, with comparable rates in 3D and 2D models. Onshore, 3D heterogeneous cases have longer flowpaths and travel times from recharge to discharge compared to 2D cases, but offshore travel times are much shorter, particularly for conduit-type models in which flow is highly preferential. Flowpath lengths and travel times are also highly variable in 3D relative to 2D for all heterogeneous simulations. The results have implications for water resources management, biogeochemical reactions within coastal aquifers, and subsequent chemical fluxes to the ocean. Plain Language Summary: The findings of this study provide insight into the complex patterns of groundwater flow under the influence of geologic variability in coastal aquifers. In coastal regions, studies of solute transport processes mainly rely on an assumption of 2D groundwater flow and solute transport in the shore-perpendicular direction. Our results reveal that groundwater does not only flow toward the sea, it also can flow along-shore, especially in aquifers with features that connect the onshore and offshore. This affects exchange and mixing between fresh and saline groundwater, which can strongly impact delivery of contaminants and nutrients to sensitive nearshore marine ecosystems. Results highlight the importance of characterizing the geology of coastal aquifers and representing it in models of groundwater flow and contaminant transport.
An edited version of this paper was published by AGU. Copyright 2021 American Geophysical Union. This article was originally published in Water Resources Research. The version of record is available at:
Geng, X., & Michael, H. A. (2021). Along-shore movement of groundwater and its effects on seawater-groundwater interactions in heterogeneous coastal aquifers. Water Resources Research, 57, e2021WR031056.