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US Department of the Interior
US Geological Survey
OFR 2004-1226

Submarine ground-water discharge and its role in coastal processes and ecosystems

P W Swarzenski1, J F Bratton2 and J Crusius2
1USGSSt Petersburg, FL
2USGS – Woods Hole, MA


cartoon of hydrogeologic cross-section
Figure 1: Cartoon depicting an idealized SGD-influenced hydrogeologic cross-section. [larger image]

Submarine ground-water discharge (SGD) has recently been recognized (Figure 1) as a phenomenon that can strongly influence coastal water and geochemical budgets and drive ecosystem change (D’Elia et al., 1981; Valiela et al., 1990; Burnett et al., 2003). For example, the discharge of nutrient-enriched ground water into coastal waters may contribute significantly to eutrophication (Bokuniewicz, 1980; Giblin and Gaines, 1990) and blooms of harmful algae (LaRoche et al., 1997). Similarly, the quantity of SGD can also directly affect the availability of fresh water to coastal communities, impact fragile coastal ecosystems such as estuaries and coral reefs (D’Elia et al., 1981), and influence geomorphology of shoreline features.

aerial photo of two coastal submarine groundwater discharge sites
Figure 2: Aerial photo (courtesy of C. Kovach, FL DEP) of two coastal SGD sites (Tampa Bay, FL) directly affecting shoreline geomorphology. [larger image]

Moore (1996) raised awareness of the global importance of SGD and much effort has been devoted to developing new tracer techniques and methods for the identification and quantification of SGD. Because the discharge of coastal ground water commonly occurs as diffuse seepage rather than focused discharge through identifiable springs (Swarzenski et al., 2001), assessing SGD has remained difficult for both oceanographers and hydrologists. Through national and international research programs, Burnett, Moore, Charette, and others have developed a rigorous, systematic approach for quantifying SGD using a wide assortment of tracers and methods (Burnett et al., 2003, Charette et al., 2001 and references therein). Intercalibration experiments, such as those conducted in coastal waters off Australia, Brazil, and Long Island, NY, demonstrate that careful measurements can accurately quantify SGD, confirm some of the driving mechanisms (e.g. climatic and tidal forcing), and constrain the spatial and temporal scales at which these mechanisms operate. Now that approaches for rigorously quantifying SGD are becoming better established, scientists can now begin to investigate the wide variety of coastal processes affected by SGD (e.g., Figure 2).


resistivity contours
Figure 3: Modeled (top graph) resisitivity contours reveal freshened (indicated in blue/purple) ground-water masses at depths > 10 m in Tampa Bay. [larger image]

The USGS is uniquely poised to delineate SGD influence on coastal processes and ecosystems because the USGS has unparalleled collective expertise in the full set of tools that can be used to study SGD. USGS scientists representing the Water Resources Discipline (WRD) have well-established expertise in ground-water sampling and modeling techniques, including development and use of variable-density flow models such as SEAWAT, but their data for constraining models usually ends at the coastline. Scientists funded by the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program (CMGP) have been helping to develop and utilize a host of complementary new geophysical and geochemical tools and specialized instrumentation. Such techniques will comprehensively extend SGD work to the coastal ocean. Locations of ground-water discharge can be inferred using streaming resistivity instrumentation (Figure 3), which rapidly detects fresh and saline water below the sediment-water interface based on variations in the electrical resistance (inverse of conductivity) of the water. This technique complements approaches (sidescan, multibeam, sub-bottom acoustics) for mapping the surficial and subsurface geology, and inferring its influence on ground-water discharge locations and styles of discharge.
photo of drilling rig
Figure 4: Drilling rig at Delmarva used for porewater sampling. [larger image]

New instruments capable of rapid, sensitive determination of radon activities can also pinpoint locations of ground-water discharge due to the frequent observation of greatly elevated radon (3.8-day half-life) activities in ground water, compared to typical surface-water activities. This technique can also be used to infer regionally averaged discharge rates by contrasting the ground-water and surface-water activities. A complementary tool is the autonomous seepage meter, which allows identifying localized rates of discharge over areas of <1 m2. Multi-port piezometers and related equipment, including floating drilling platforms (Figure 4), allow samples of submarine ground water to be collected at different depths prior to discharge. These samples can then be analyzed for salinity, human-derived dissolved gases for age dating (CFCs, SF6, and 3H), and other constituents, especially nutrients like nitrate and ammonium. Residence times of waters can be estimated by measuring the four natural isotopes of radium, due to their range of half-lives from 3.8 days to 1600 years. These measurements can be made using a combination of new scintillation techniques and well-established gamma spectroscopy approaches. The USGS Science Centers in St. Petersburg and Woods Hole have recently acquired many of these instruments. Additional instruments and analyses are available through collaborations with other USGS scientists and researchers at academic institutions.

As mentioned above, the study of SGD is immensely valuable for understanding the availability of water for both humans and coastal ecosystems. In addition, the study of SGD is of value because of SGD’s influence on many coastal processes that span the disciplines of geology, geomorphology, geochemistry, biology, hydrology, and ecology. Specific examples of research areas where USGS SGD studies can help to solve interdisciplinary problems include:

i) assessment of the redox- and microbially-controlled delivery of SGD-borne nutrients and trace elements (linking the fields of geochemistry and coastal hydrogeology)

ii) evaluation of coastal ecosystem change in response to variable SGD (linking the fields of biology, ecology, and biogeochemistry to coastal hydrogeology and meteorology)

iii) examination of SGD-breached shorefaces and the influence of SGD associated with paleo-channels on erosional hotspots (linking the fields of coastal geology and geomorphology to coastal hydrology),

iv) developing the capability to predict/forecast SGD-associated processes and events (e.g., can we predict lag times between initiation of wastewater discharge into coastal aquifers and appearance of impacts of SGD-derived nutrients on coastal ecosystems?)

As this list suggests, studies of SGD can play integral roles in a host of interdisciplinary research projects in the coastal zone.


U.S. east coast map with project sites
Figure 5: US east coast map depicting selected USGS SGD project sites. [larger image]

Current SGD projects at USGS are primarily focused on the first-order questions of the locations and rates of discharge, as well as studies of nutrient delivery from SGD (Figure 5). These include:

Delmarva Peninsula

  • Characterization of submarine extensions of surficial aquifers in Delaware and Maryland beneath coastal bays, especially Indian River Bay and Chincoteague Bay, including determination of the contribution of SGD to eutrophication (2000-present)


  • Indian River Lagoon: estimating the contribution of SGD to the lagoon using radium isotope measurements (1999-2001).
  • Biscayne Bay: Characterization of SGD rates and hydrogeologic control thereof (1998-present)
  • Crescent Beach Spring: geological and geochemical characterization of a large submarine spring located approximately 4 km from shore (1998-2000)
  • Tampa Bay: determination of the quantity and quality of freshened ground water discharging to the bay and its possible impacts on seagrass health (2001-present)
  • Loxahatchee River Estuary: Determining the contribution of SGD to the estuary as part of the South Florida Water Management District's Everglades restoration (2003-2005)

North Carolina

  • Outer Banks: characterization of the thickness of fresh-water lenses beneath the barrier islands, and the salinity of deep ground water flowing beneath adjacent Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound (2001-2004)
  • Neuse River Estuary: study of the geologic controls on the rates and locations of SGD, drawing upon other investigations, especially at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (2003-2005)


  • Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve: testing of new instruments to detect SGD, including a boat-based radon mapping system, in an area used as a natural laboratory for previous SGD studies by other investigators (2004-present)
  • Cape Cod National Seashore: characterization of the role of SGD in eutrophication of the Nauset Marsh and Pleasant Bay systems, with special attention to impacts on seagrasses (2004-present). Water and nutrient fluxes and denitrification rates are all being assessed.

Mediterranean Sea

  • Israel: use of various tools to develop an estimate of total SGD along the entire Mediterranean coast of Israel, along with academic collaborators (2004-present)

Possible future research areas and topics:

  • Alaska: investigation of SGD in regions with intense seasonality, active glaciation, permafrost; study of the role of SGD in water and nutrient delivery (nitrate and iron) to the N. Pacific Ocean.
  • Hawaii: assessment of SGD to fringe coral reef ecosystems, and study of the style of discharge from fractured rock aquifers and lava tubes
  • Yucatán Peninsula: determination of interconnections between ocean waters and the cenote ring associated with the Chicxulub impact crater; the area has been chosen as a prime candidate for a coordinated study of chemical fluxes in the GEOTRACES program (see below and and was recently featured in a National Geographic article (


Table 1: Selected USGS and academic collaborators:
Institution Collaborator
USGS-WRD Böhlke, Masterson, Colman, Langevin
USGS-BRD Neckles, Kopp, Smith
National Park Service Portnoy
Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. Charette
Marine Biological Laboratory Giblin
U. Rhode Island Moran
U. Toledo Krantz
East Carolina U. Corbett
Florida State U. Burnett
U. South Carolina Moore
U. of Florida Martin
Louisiana State U. Cable

Table 2: Links to other programs/projects
Organization Contact/program Focus
NSF GEOTRACES Distribution of trace elements and isotopes in the ocean
MARGINS Understand processes that control evolution of continental margins
CoOP Coastal ocean processes
LTERs Plum Island
Santa Barbara Coastal
Georgia Coastal Ecosystems
Florida Coastal Everglades
NPS Cape Cod National Seashore
Assateague Island
Bicayne Bay
NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserves
National Estuarine Eutrophication Assessment
EPA National Estuary Program
Coastal Intensive Site Network
National Coastal Condition Report
Army Corps of Engineers Duck, NC List/McNinch erosion hotspot study
Water Management Districts South Florida
Dare County, NC
Loxahatchee River, Tampa Bay and Outer Banks water supply (desalinization plant issues); habitat restoration (Everglades)

Selected Bibliography

Back, W. and Hanshaw, B., 1970, Comparison of chemical hydrogeology of the Carbonate Peninsulas of Florida and Yucatan: Journal of Hydrology, v. 10, no. 4, p. 330-368.

Barlow, P., 2003, Ground water in freshwater-saltwater environments of the Atlantic Coast, USGS Circular 1262, 113 p.

Bokuniewicz, H., 1980, Groundwater seepage into Great South Bay, New York: Estuar. Coast. Mar. Sci, v. 10, p. 437-444.

Bratton, J.F., Böhlke, J.K., Manheim, F.M., and Krantz, D.E., in press, Submarine ground water in Delmarva Peninsula coastal bays: Ages and nutrients, Ground Water.

Bratton, J., Guntenspergen, G., Taggart, B., Wheeler, D., Bjorklund, L., Bothner, M., Kotra, R., Lent, R., Mecray, E., Neckles, H., Poore, B., Rideout, S., Russell-Robinson, S., Weiskel, P., 2003, Coastal ecosystems and resources framework for science, USGS Open-File Report 03-405.

Browder, A.G., and McNinch, J.E., 2004, Spatial correlation of paleo-channels with gravel outcrops and shore-oblique sandbars in the nearshore Northeast-Southeast Sections Meeting, Geological Society of America, Abstracts with Program.

Burnett, W.C., Bokuniewicz, H., Huettel, M., Moore, W.S., and Taniguchi, M., 2003, Groundwater and pore water inputs to the coastal zone: Biogeochemistry, v. 66, p. 3-33.

Charette, M.A., Buesseler, K.O., and Andrews, J.E., 2001, Utility of radium isotopes for evaluating the input and transport of groundwater-derived nitrogen to a Cape Cod estuary: Limnology and Oceanography, v. 46, p. 465-470.

D'Elia, C.F., Webb, K.L., and Porter, J.W., 1981, Nitrate-rich groundwater inputs to Discovery Bay, Jamaica: A significant source of N to local coral reefs?: Bulletin of Marine Science, v. 31, p. 903-910.

Giblin, A.E., and Gaines, A.G., 1990, Nitrogen inputs to a marine embayment: the importance of groundwater: Biogeochemistry, v. 10, p. 309-328.

Herrera-Silviera, J., Aranda, N., Troccoli, L., Young, M., and A. Paytan (2003) Spring water quality in coastal lagoons of the Yucatan Peninsula. Yucatan Hydrogeology Special Paper, In Press.

Kohout, F.A., 1960, Cyclic flow of saltwater in the Biscayne aquifer of southeastern Florida, Journal of Geophysical Research v. 65, p. 2133-2141.

Laroche, J., Nuzzi, R., Waters, R., Wyman, K., Falkowski, P.G., and Wallace, D.W.R., 1997, Brown tide blooms in Long Island's coastal waters linked to interannual variability in groundwater flow: Global Change Biology, v. 3, p. 397-410.

Manheim, F.T., Krantz, D.E., and Bratton, J.F., in press, Studying ground water beneath Delmarva coastal bays using electrical resistivity, Ground Water.

Moore, W.S., 1996, Large groundwater inputs to coastal waters revealed by 226Ra enrichments: Nature, v. 380, p. 612-614.

Swarzenski, P.W., Martin, J.B., Cable, J.E., and Bowker, R., 2000, Quantification of submarine groundwater discharge to the Indian River Lagoon, Florida: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-492, 4 p.

Swarzenski, P.W., Reich, C.D., Spechler, R.M., Kindinger, J.L., and Moore, W.S., 2001, Using multiple geochemical tracers to characterize the hydrogeology of the submarine spring off Crescent Beach, Florida: Chemical Geology, v. 179, p. 187-202.

Swarzenski, P.W., and Kindinger, J.L., 2003, Leaky Coastal Margins: Examples of enhanced coastal groundwater/surface water exchange from Tampa Bay and Crescent Beach submarine spring, Florida. In Coastal Aquifer Management, Monitoring and Modeling and Case Studies. Eds A. Cheng and D. Ouazar. CRC/Lewis Press, p. 93-112.

Valiela, I., Costa, J., Foreman, K., Teal, J.M., Howes, B.L., and Aubrey, D.G., 1990, Transport of groundwater-borne nutrients from watersheds and their effects on coastal waters: Biogeochemistry, v. 10, p. 177-197.

Young, M., A. Paytan, J. Herrera-Silveira (2003) Identification of sources of ground water discharge in Celestun Lagoon using radium isotopes and multiple chemical tracers.  Second International Conference on Salt Water Intrusion and Coastal Aquifers, Merida, Mexico.

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Related information:

SOFIA Project: Ground Water - Surface Water Seepage at Select TIME Sites

Gulf of Mexico Integrated Science Tampa Bay Water & Sediment Quality Reports

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