Seasonal cycles in radium and barium within a subterranean estuary: Implications for groundwater derived chemical fluxes to surface waters Academic Article uri icon


  • There is increasing evidence that submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) is an important source of water and dissolved materials to the ocean. One of the primary tracers of this process is the quartet of radium isotopes (Ra-223, Ra-224, Ra-226 and Ra-228), whereby excess activities in surface waters can often be attributed to an input supplied via SGD. This approach requires the radium end member activity to be well constrained, however, natural variability in groundwater radium may span several orders of magnitude. Therefore, this variability is usually the main driver of uncertainties in volumetric SGD estimates. To investigate the physical and biogeochemical controls on groundwater radium activities, we conducted a three-year time series of radium and barium, a chemical analogue for radium, within the subterranean estuary of a coastal aquifer (Waquoit Bay, MA, USA). Gonneea et al. (2013) demonstrated that movement of the salinity interface within the subterranean estuary is driven by changes in the hydraulic gradient between groundwater level and sea level height. For Waquoit Bay, seasonal scale sea level change, not groundwater level, was the main driver in hydraulic gradient fluctuations. Seasonal changes in groundwater chemistry can be attributed to the resulting movement of the salinity transition zone between terrestrial and marine groundwater. Landward movement of the interface results in a large release of radium isotopes (Ra-226 = 1400 dpm 100 L-1) and barium (3000 nmol kg(-1)) associated with an increase in groundwater salinity. The magnitude of these releases cannot be explained by in situ production or weathering alone, but is likely due to salinity driven desorption from surface-bound sediment inventory. The timing of these peak concentrations is not always in phase with model-derived estimates of SGD; as a result, the groundwater concentration rather than the water flux is the main driver of Ra and Ba inputs to Waquoit Bay surface waters. The behavior of the subterranean estuary as an ion exchange reservoir has important implications for the timing and flux of various nutrients and pollutants that transit this region prior to discharge. In addition to modulating chemical fluxes via submarine groundwater discharge on seasonal time scales, transgression of the subterranean estuary may alter the input of chemicals to the ocean on decadal and longer time scales. During this study, the observed excess flux of Ra-226 and Ba from the subterranean estuary can be accounted for with sorbed sediment pools and accelerating rates of sea level rise in this region. (C) 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

publication date

  • October 2013