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Observations of wave transformation over a fringing coral reef and the importance of low-frequency waves and offshore water levels to runup, overwash, and coastal flooding

May 23, 2016

Many low-lying tropical islands are susceptible to sea level rise and often subjected to overwash and flooding during large wave events. To quantify wave dynamics and wave-driven water levels on fringing coral reefs, a 5 month deployment of wave gauges and a current meter was conducted across two shore-normal transects on Roi-Namur Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. These observations captured two large wave events that had waves with maximum heights greater than 6 m with peak periods of 16 s over the fore reef. The larger event coincided with a peak spring tide, leading to energetic, highly skewed infragravity (0.04–0.004 Hz) and very low frequency (0.004–0.001 Hz) waves at the shoreline, which reached heights of 1.0 and 0.7 m, respectively. Water surface elevations, combined with wave runup, reached 3.7 m above the reef bed at the innermost reef flat adjacent to the toe of the beach, resulting in flooding of inland areas. This overwash occurred during a 3 h time window that coincided with high tide and maximum low-frequency reef flat wave heights. The relatively low-relief characteristics of this narrow reef flat may further drive shoreline amplification of low-frequency waves due to resonance modes. These results (1) demonstrate how the coupling of high offshore water levels with low-frequency reef flat wave energetics can lead to large impacts along fringing reef-lined shorelines, such as island overwash, and (2) lend support to the hypothesis that predicted higher sea levels will lead to more frequent occurrences of these extreme events, negatively impacting coastal resources and infrastructure.