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Simulation of water-table response to sea-level rise and change in recharge, Sandy Hook unit, Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey

July 16, 2021

The Sandy Hook Unit, Gateway National Recreation Area (hereafter Sandy Hook) in New Jersey is a 10-kilometer-long spit visited by thousands of people each year who take advantage of the historical and natural resources and recreational opportunities. The historical and natural resources are threatened by global climate change, including sea-level rise (SLR), changes in precipitation and groundwater recharge, and changes in the frequency and severity of coastal storms. Fresh groundwater resources are important to the ecosystems of Sandy Hook. The Bayside Holly Forest, one of only two known old-growth American holly (Ilex opaca) maritime forests, is particularly vulnerable to global climate change because of the proximity of the water table to land surface in low-lying areas and the potential for saltwater intrusion and inundation.

The shallow groundwater-flow system on Sandy Hook is dominated by recharge from precipitation, fresh groundwater discharge to evapotranspiration (ET), discharge to surface seeps, and submarine groundwater discharge (groundwater discharging directly to the ocean). A three-dimensional groundwater-flow model that simulates the shallow groundwater-flow system and interaction with surrounding saltwater boundaries was constructed to simulate multi-density groundwater flow, treating the freshwater/saltwater transition zone as a sharp interface that represents the half-seawater surface.

Groundwater-flow simulations completed for this study include a Baseline scenario, three SLR scenarios (0.2, 0.4, and 0.6 meter [m]), two Recharge scenarios—a 10-percent Increased Recharge scenario and a 10-percent Decreased Recharge scenario—and a scenario with 0.6 m of SLR and 10-percent increase in recharge. The Recharge scenarios indicate the system is not sensitive to a 10-percent increase or decrease in recharge from the Baseline scenario. In the SLR scenarios, SLR causes the water table to rise, resulting in increased fresh groundwater discharge to ET and seeps, and reduced submarine discharge compared to the Baseline scenario. The increased discharge to ET and seeps causes the magnitude of water-table rise to be less than that of SLR, which in turn causes the thickness of the freshwater lens to thin, reducing the depth to the half-seawater surface. Water-table rise associated with SLR diminishes the thickness of the unsaturated zone; comparing the Baseline and the 0.6-m SLR scenarios, the area where the simulated water table is above land surface increases by 50.6 hectares, from about 0.9 to 7.4 percent of the land area of Sandy Hook. Areas where the simulated water table is above land surface are likely to be emergent wetlands and contain freshwater if they are tens of meters or more from the shoreline. The steady-state simulations indicate that the percentage of land where the half-seawater surface is less than 9 m below the water table increases from about 2.5 percent (20 hectares) to about 9 percent (74 hectares) with 0.6 m of SLR. In low-lying areas close to the Sandy Hook Bay shoreline, the half-seawater surface is simulated to be as much as 20 m closer to the water table with SLR of 0.6 m. Transient salinization, if any, of shallow groundwater from increased frequency or severity of storm-driven inundation is not included in the analysis.

Natural resources on Sandy Hook, particularly the Bayside Holly Forest, may be adversely affected by the rising water table associated with SLR. Freshwater emergent wetlands may increase in area at the expense of other ecosystem assemblages occurring in or on the edges of low-lying enclosed depressions. Cultural resources close to the water table, such as existing basements of structures, may be adversely affected.

Publication Year 2021
Title Simulation of water-table response to sea-level rise and change in recharge, Sandy Hook unit, Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey
DOI 10.3133/sir20205080
Authors Glen B. Carleton, Emmanuel G. Charles, Alex R. Fiore, Richard B. Winston
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5080
Index ID sir20205080
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New Jersey Water Science Center