Spatial Patterns of Groundwater Biogeochemical Reactivity in an Intertidal Beach Aquifer

Kyra H. Kim, James W. Heiss, Holly A. Michael, Wei-Jun Cai, Tariq Laattoe, Vincent E. A. Post, William J. Ullman

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    38 Citations (Scopus)


    Beach aquifers host a dynamic and reactive mixing zone between fresh and saline groundwater of contrasting origin and composition. Seawater, driven up the beachface by waves and tides, infiltrates into the aquifer and meets the seaward-discharging fresh groundwater, creating and maintaining a reactive intertidal circulation cell. Within the cell, land-derived nutrients delivered by fresh groundwater are transformed or attenuated. We investigated this process by collecting pore water samples from multilevel wells along a shore-perpendicular transect on a beach near Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and analyzing solute and particulate concentrations. Pore water incubation experiments were conducted to determine rates of oxygen consumption and nitrogen gas production. A numerical model was employed to support field and laboratory interpretations. Results showed that chemically sensitive parameters such as pH and ORP diverged from salinity distribution patterns, indicating biogeochemical reactivity within the circulation cell. The highest respiration rates were found in the landward freshwater-saltwater mixing zone, supported by high dissolved inorganic carbon. Chlorophyll a, a proxy for phytoplankton, and particulate carbon did not co-occur with the highest respiration rates but were heterogeneously distributed in deeper and hypoxic areas of the cell. The highest rates of N2 production were also found in the mixing zone coinciding with elevated O2 consumption rates but closer to the lower discharge point. Model results were consistent with these observations, showing heightened denitrification in the mixing zone. The results of this work emphasize the relationship between the physical flow processes of the circulation cell and its biogeochemical reactivity and highlight the environmental significance of sandy beaches.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2548-2562
    Number of pages15
    JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
    Issue number10
    Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017


    • beach aquifer
    • biogeochemistry
    • intertidal circulation cell
    • nitrogen cycle
    • reactive transport
    • submarine groundwater discharge


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