Estuarine Processes, Hazards, and Ecosystems

Science Center Objects

Estuarine processes, hazards, and ecosystems describes several interdisciplinary projects that aim to quantify and understand estuarine processes through observations and numerical modeling. Both the spatial and temporal scales of these mechanisms are important, and therefore require modern instrumentation and state-of-the-art hydrodynamic models. These projects are led from the U.S. Geological Survey's Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, but are collaborative projects that include participation from other U.S. Geological Survey offices, other federal and state agencies, and academic institutions.

Estuaries are dynamic environments where complex interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, watershed, ecosystems, and human infrastructure take place. They serve as valuable ecological habitat and provide numerous ecosystem services and recreational opportunities. However, they are modified by physical processes such as storms and sea-level rise, while anthropogenic impacts such as nutrient loading threaten ecosystem function within estuaries. This project collects basic observational data on these processes, develops numerical models of the processes, and applies the models to understand the past, present, and future states of estuaries.

Measuring parameters such as water velocity, salinity, sediment concentration, dissolved oxygen and other constituents in watersheds, tidal wetlands, estuaries, and coasts is critical for evaluating the socioeconomic and ecological function of those regions. Technological advances have made it possible to autonomously measure these parameters over timescales of weeks to months. These measurements are necessary to evaluate three-dimensional numerical models that can represent the spatial and temporal complexity of these parameters. Once the models adequately represent relevant aspects of the physical system, they can be used to evaluate possible future scenarios including sea-level rise, streamflow changes, land-use modifications, and geomorphic evolution.

Video Transcript

This time-lapse video shows lateral erosion of a salt marsh in the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, part of an embayment near the city of Pascagoula, Mississippi, on the US Gulf coast. Wave action over the course of 6.5 months led to about 1.5 meters of erosion. Researchers from the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center are studying the influence of wave attack and sediment supply on wetland vulnerability and ecosystem services. Learn more about estuaries research at the USGS by visiting the Estuarine Processes, Hazards, and Ecosystems project web page at