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Evolution of mid-Atlantic coastal and back-barrier estuary environments in response to a hurricane: Implications for barrier-estuary connectivity

December 29, 2015

Assessments of coupled barrier island-estuary storm response are rare. Hurricane Sandy made landfall during an investigation in Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor estuary that included water quality monitoring, geomorphologic characterization, and numerical modeling; this provided an opportunity to characterize the storm response of the barrier island-estuary system. Barrier island morphologic response was characterized by significant changes in shoreline position, dune elevation, and beach volume; morphologic changes within the estuary were less dramatic with a net gain of only 200,000 m3 of sediment. When observed, estuarine deposition was adjacent to the back-barrier shoreline or collocated with maximum estuary depths. Estuarine sedimentologic changes correlated well with bed shear stresses derived from numerically simulated storm conditions, suggesting that change is linked to winnowing from elevated storm-related wave-current interactions rather than deposition. Rapid storm-related changes in estuarine water level, turbidity, and salinity were coincident with minima in island and estuarine widths, which may have influenced the location of two barrier island breaches. Barrier-estuary connectivity, or the transport of sediment from barrier island to estuary, was influenced by barrier island land use and width. Coupled assessments like this one provide critical information about storm-related coastal and estuarine sediment transport that may not be evident from investigations that consider only one component of the coastal system.