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Climate and Land Use Change Research and Development Program

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Published Papers and Reports:

Masterson, J.P., Fienen, M.N., Thieler, E.R., Gesch, D.B., Gutierrez, B.T., and Plant, N.G., 2013, Effects of sea-level rise on barrier island groundwater system dynamics - ecohydrological implications. Ecohydrology, doi.10.1002/eco.1442

Fienen, M.N., Masterson, J.P., Plant, N.G., Gutierrez, B.T., and Thieler, E.R., 2013, Bridging groundwater models and decision support with a Bayesian network, Water Resources Research, v. 49, p. 6459-6473.

Masterson, J.P., Fienen, M.N., Gesch, D.B., Carlson, C.S., 2013, Simulation of groundwater flow in the shallow aquifer of Assateague Island, Maryland-Virginia: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2013-1111, 32 pp.

Banks, W.S.L., Masterson, J.P., and Johnson, C.D., 2012, Well network installation and hydrogeological data collection, Assateague Island National Seashore, Worcester County, Maryland, 2010: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5079, 52 p.

Abstracts/Conference Proceedings:

Fienen, M.N.,Masterson, J., Plant, N. G., Gutierrez, B. T., Thieler, E. R., Emulation Modeling with Bayesian Networks for Efficient Decision Support, AGU Fall Meeting, December 3-7, 2012, San Francisco, CA.

Johnson, C.D., Masterson, J.P., White, E.A., Voytek, E.B., Joesten, P.K., Fleming, B.J., and Lane, J.W., 2012, Use of Geophysical Methods to Characterize the Hydrogeology of Assateague Island National Seashore, Worcester County, Maryland, 2010: in Proceedings of Symposium on the Application of Geophysics to Engineering and Environmental Problems Annual Meeting, Tuscon, Arizona, March 26-29, 2012.

Masterson, J.P., Banks, W.S.L, Johnson, C.D., Gutierrez, B.T., and Fienen, M.N., 2011, Hydrologic assessment of the potential effects of sea-level rise on Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland: in Proceedings of the National Ground Water Association National Summit, Baltimore, Maryland, May 1-5, 2011.

Assessment of Potential Hydrologic Effects of Sea Level Rise

Assateague Island. View from the north. Photo courtesy of Joanna Woerner
Assateague Island. View from the north.
Photo courtesy of Joanna Woerner
Monitoring wells and borehole geophysical logging equipment. Photo courtesy of Carole Johnson
Monitoring wells and borehole geophysical
logging equipment.
Photo courtesy of Carole Johnson
The purpose of this project is to analyze the shallow, permeable, groundwater flow system beneath Assateague Island National Seashore as part of a larger, multi-disciplinary effort designed to assess the potential impacts of sea-level rise and provide tools for coastal management decision making ( The initial phase of this effort was to install wells to record water levels. The wells were also used for geophysical measurements to determine salinity of the groundwater. The next phase focused primarily on developing a calibrated three-dimensional ground-water flow model capable of simulating both the fresh and saltwater flow systems to examine the response of groundwater levels and the position of the freshwater/saltwater interface that occur as the elevation of the sea surface increases.

Results from this analysis suggest that simulated changes in sea level of less than 60 cm above present levels will result in substantial changes to the groundwater system including an increase in water-table altitude and increased potential for saltwater intrusion. The results from this hydrogeologic analysis will be integrated with related predictions of island erosion, overwash and inundation and marsh resilience developed by other parts of the larger project using a Bayesian decision network. This Bayesian network integrates a wide range of geologic, biologic, and hydrologic information on coastal systems and the related uncertainties in physical and process characterizations. The groundwater assessment and modeling fits into the larger constellation of processes to allow support decision making and evaluate specific management questions about alternatives for adapting to SLR, as well as to identify research needed to improve predictive skill.

Why is this research important?

Assateague Island, spanning the Maryland-Virginia border has been identified as one of the national seashores facing significant risk from the effects of global climate change. This vulnerability is due to the inherently dynamic and unstable nature of barrier islands, the natural resources present on the island, and to its location in a region experiencing some of the highest rates of relative sea level rise along the east coast of the United States. These changes will impact use of the island by both humans and fauna; specifically, the island serves as an important breeding ground and habitat for endangered species such as the Piping Plover. The impact of climate change and sea-level rise in particular, is expected to include changes in erosion rates, island morphology, marsh health, and groundwater processes.

Principal Investigator: John Masterson, New England Water Science Center - Massachusetts Office

Project Team: Michael Fienen, Wisconsin Water Science Center

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