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Determining the drivers of suspended sediment dynamics in tidal marsh-influenced estuaries using high-resolution ocean color remote sensing

February 7, 2020

Sediment budgets are a critical metric to assess coastal marsh vulnerability to sea-level rise and declining riverine sediment inputs. However, calculating accurate sediment budgets is challenging in tidal marsh-influenced estuaries where suspended sediment concentrations (SSC) typically vary on scales of hours and meters, and where SSC dynamics are driven by a complex and often site-specific interplay of hydrodynamic and meteorological conditions. The mapping of SSC using ocean-color remote sensing is well established and can help capture the spatio-temporal variability needed to determine the dominant drivers regulating sediment budgets. However, the coarse spatial resolution of traditional ocean-color sensors (1-km) generally precludes their use in coastal-marsh estuaries. Here, using the Plum Island Estuary (Massachusetts, USA) as an example, we demonstrate that high-spatial-resolution maps of SSC derived from Landsat-8 Operational Land Imager (OLI) and Sentinel-2A/B Multispectral Instruments (MSI) can be used to determine the main drivers of SSC dynamics in tidal marsh-influenced estuaries, despite the long revisit time of these sensors. Local empirical algorithms between SSC and remote sensing reflectance were derived and applied to a total of 46 clear-sky scenes collected by the OLI and the MSI between 2013 and 2018. The analysis revealed that this 5-year record was sufficient to capture a representative range of meteorological and tidal conditions required to determine the main drivers of SSC dynamics in this mid-latitude system. The interplay between river and tidal flows dominated SSC dynamics in this estuary, whereas wind-driven resuspension had more moderate effects. The SSC were higher during spring because of increased river discharge due to snowmelt. Tidal asymmetry also enhanced sediment resuspension during flood tides, possibly favoring deposition on marsh platforms. Together, water level, water-level rate of change, river discharge and wind speed were able to explain > 60% of the variability in the main-channel thalweg-averaged SSC, thereby facilitating future prediction of SSC from these readily available variables. This study demonstrates that the existing multi-year records of high-resolution remote sensing can provide a representative depiction of SSC dynamics in hydrodynamically-complex and small-scale estuaries that moderate-resolution ocean color remote sensing and in situ measurements are unable to capture.