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Quantification of storm-induced bathymetric change in a back-barrier estuary

September 13, 2016

Geomorphology is a fundamental control on ecological and economic function of estuaries. However, relative to open coasts, there has been little quantification of storm-induced bathymetric change in back-barrier estuaries. Vessel-based and airborne bathymetric mapping can cover large areas quickly, but change detection is difficult because measurement errors can be larger than the actual changes over the storm timescale. We quantified storm-induced bathymetric changes at several locations in Chincoteague Bay, Maryland/Virginia, over the August 2014 to July 2015 period using fixed, downward-looking altimeters and numerical modeling. At sand-dominated shoal sites, measurements showed storm-induced changes on the order of 5 cm, with variability related to stress magnitude and wind direction. Numerical modeling indicates that the predominantly northeasterly wind direction in the fall and winter promotes southwest-directed sediment transport, causing erosion of the northern face of sandy shoals; southwesterly winds in the spring and summer lead to the opposite trend. Our results suggest that storm-induced estuarine bathymetric change magnitudes are often smaller than those detectable with methods such as LiDAR. More precise fixed-sensor methods have the ability to elucidate the geomorphic processes responsible for modulating estuarine bathymetry on the event and seasonal timescale, but are limited spatially. Numerical modeling enables interpretation of broad-scale geomorphic processes and can be used to infer the long-term trajectory of estuarine bathymetric change due to episodic events, when informed by fixed-sensor methods.