Effects of Unsaturated Flow on Salt Distributions in Tidally Influenced Coastal Unconfined Aquifers

Zhaoyang Luo, Jun Kong, Xiayang Yu, Chunhui Lu, Adrian D. Werner, David A. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


Unsaturated flow influences both the seawater extent under steady-state conditions and the propagation of tides in coastal aquifers. However, its effects on salt distributions in tidally influenced coastal aquifers are little investigated. The present study used numerical simulations and data from laboratory experiments to analyze the effects of unsaturated flow on density-dependent solute transport in coastal unconfined aquifers. The effects of the inland boundary condition (i.e., constant-head or constant-flux) were tested. Compared to a stable sea level, the results show that unsaturated flow has a more pronounced influence on salt distributions in coastal unconfined aquifers when tides are considered, regardless of the type of inland boundary condition. Neglect of unsaturated flow effects leads to expansion of the upper saline plume (USP), shrinkage of the saltwater wedge (seaward movement of saltwater wedge), and overestimation of water and salt exchange across the aquifer-ocean interface. This is caused by a lower head in the nearshore area during high-tide periods with the unsaturated zone effects removed. Thus, without the unsaturated zone, stronger head gradients within the nearshore aquifer occur at high tide, leading to stronger tidally driven seawater infiltration and hence a larger USP. Counterintuitively, ignoring unsaturated flow effects leads to greater average inland head over a tidal period, which shifts the saltwater wedge seaward. It is concluded that unsaturated zone effects should not be neglected for modeling tide-affected seawater intrusion, especially if quantification of near-shore conditions is important.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2022WR032931
Number of pages18
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023


  • laboratory experiment
  • numerical simulation
  • saltwater wedge
  • tidal fluctuation
  • upper saline plume


Dive into the research topics of 'Effects of Unsaturated Flow on Salt Distributions in Tidally Influenced Coastal Unconfined Aquifers'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this