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Time scales of circulation and mixing processes of San Francisco Bay waters

January 1, 1985

Conceptual models for tidal period and low-frequency variations in sea level, currents, and mixing processes in the northern and southern reaches of San Francisco Bay describe the contrasting characteristics and dissimilar processes and rates in these embayments: The northern reach is a partially mixed estuary whereas the southern reach (South Bay) is a tidally oscillating lagoon with density-driven exchanges with the northern reach.

The mixed semidiurnal tides are mixtures of progressive and standing waves. The relatively simple oscillations in South Bay are nearly standing waves, with energy propagating down the channels and dispersing into the broad shoal areas. The tides of the northern reach have the general properties of a progressive wave but are altered at the constriction of the embayments and gradually change in an upstream direction to a mixture of progressive and standing waves. The spring and neap variations of the tides are pronounced and cause fortnightly varying tidal currents that affect mixing and salinity stratification in the water column.

Wind stress on the water surface, freshwater inflow, and tidal currents interacting with the complex bay configuration are the major local forcing mechanisms creating low-frequency variations in sea level and currents. These local forcing mechanisms drive the residual flows which, with tidal diffusion, control the water-replacement rates in the estuary. In the northern reach, the longitudinal density gradient drives an estuarine circulation in the channels, and the spatial variation in tidal amplitude creates a tidally-driven residual circulation. In contrast, South Bay exhibits a balance between wind-driven circulation and tidally-driven residual circulation for most of the year. During winter, however, there can be sufficient density variations to drive multilayer (2 to 3) flows in the channel of South Bay.

Mixing models (that include both diffusive and dispersive processes) are based on time scales associated with salt variations at the boundaries and those associated with the local forcing mechanisms, while the spatial scales of variations are dependent upon the configuration of the embayments. In the northern reach, where the estuarine circulation is strong, the salt flux is carried by the mean advection of the mean salt field. Where large salinity gradients are present, the tidal correlation part of the salt flux is of the same order as the advective part. Our knowledge of mixing and exchange rates in South Bay is poor. As this embayment is nearly isohaline, the salt flux is dominated entirely by the mean advection of the mean salt field. During and after peaks in river discharge, water mixing becomes more dynamic, with a strong density-driven current creating a net exchange of both water mass and salt. These exchanges are stronger during neap tides.

Residence times of the water masses vary seasonally and differ between reaches. In the northern reach, residence times are on the order of days for high winter river discharge and of months for summer periods. The residence times for South Bay are fairly long (on the order of several months) during summer, and typically shorter (less than a month) during winter when density-driven exchanges occur.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1985
Title Time scales of circulation and mixing processes of San Francisco Bay waters
DOI 10.1007/BF00048685
Authors R. A. Walters, R. T. Cheng, T. J. Conomos
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrobiologia
Index ID 70012828
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center; San Francisco Bay-Delta; Pacific Regional Director's Office