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Using continuous underway isotope measurements to map water residence time in hydrodynamically complex tidal environments

December 1, 2016

Stable isotopes present in water (δ2H, δ18O) have been used extensively to evaluate hydrological processes on the basis of parameters such as evaporation, precipitation, mixing, and residence time. In estuarine aquatic habitats, residence time (τ) is a major driver of biogeochemical processes, affecting trophic subsidies and conditions in fish-spawning habitats. But τ is highly variable in estuaries, owing to constant changes in river inflows, tides, wind, and water height, all of which combine to affect τ in unpredictable ways. It recently became feasible to measure δ2H and δ18O continuously, at a high sampling frequency (1 Hz), using diffusion sample introduction into a cavity ring-down spectrometer. To better understand the relationship of τ to biogeochemical processes in a dynamic estuarine system, we continuously measured δ2H and δ18O, nitrate and water quality parameters, on board a small, high-speed boat (5 to >10 m s–1) fitted with a hull-mounted underwater intake. We then calculated τ as is classically done using the isotopic signals of evaporation. The result was high-resolution (∼10 m) maps of residence time, nitrate, and other parameters that showed strong spatial gradients corresponding to geomorphic attributes of the different channels in the area. The mean measured value of τ was 30.5 d, with a range of 0–50 d. We used the measured spatial gradients in both τ and nitrate to calculate whole-ecosystem uptake rates, and the values ranged from 0.006 to 0.039 d–1. The capability to measure residence time over single tidal cycles in estuaries will be useful for evaluating and further understanding drivers of phytoplankton abundance, resolving differences attributable to mixing and water sources, explicitly calculating biogeochemical rates, and exploring the complex linkages among time-dependent biogeochemical processes in hydrodynamically complex environments such as estuaries.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2016
Title Using continuous underway isotope measurements to map water residence time in hydrodynamically complex tidal environments
DOI 10.1021/acs.est.6b05745
Authors Bryan D. Downing, Brian A. Bergamaschi, Carol Kendall, Tamara E. C. Kraus, Kate J. Dennis, Jeffery A. Carter, Travis von Dessonneck
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Science & Technology
Index ID 70179765
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center