About this Research Topic
Over recent decades, it has become widely recognized that water exchange between coastal aquifers and the ocean is an important component of the hydrologic cycle. Twenty years have passed since Willard S. Moore (Moore, 1999) introduced the term ‘subterranean estuary’ (STE) to identify those zones within coastal aquifers where fresh groundwater mixes with surface saltwater. Like open-water estuaries, STEs regulate the transfer of chemicals to the sea under the seashore by submarine groundwater discharge (SGD). This subterranean reactive node in the land-ocean exchange pathway has a physical, even if elusive, structure created by a combination of temporally and spatially variable mass transfer across the groundwater-ocean interface and dynamic flow processes. Many case studies have shown that SGD is a key material link between coastal watersheds and the sea and indeed spatially resolved budgets of radioactive tracers in shelf waters suggest it is the dominant bulk water flux to coastal zones globally.
Clearly, STE outflow as SGD is a large source of biogeochemically active solutes to shelf seas, meaning that elemental budgets for these waters have to be revised in order to account for the new input. But how? Recognizing the global prevalence and potential environmental and societal impact of SGD, numerous attempts to quantify chemical inputs into the ocean through this pathway have been published over the past 40 years. However, the role of the STE in modulating chemical fluxes to coastal waters has been generally oversimplified, making comprehensive analysis of cause and effect relationships between SGD inputs and ecosystem dynamics merely indicative. Unfortunately, we still lack a mechanistic understanding of the processes that control the interaction between allochthonous chemical delivery and autochthonous recycling in the STE that drive compositional variability of SGD flows. Like that applied to open-water estuaries, a general practical and theoretical framework is needed – one that captures the structure and biogeochemistry of STEs and allows more accurate understanding of the chemical composition of SGD outflows, while simultaneously providing for a typological basis that provides solid support for extrapolation of local SGD chemical flux measurements to regional, and from these to global, scale.
A comprehensive and critical review of the current state-of-the art would reveal that progress requires:
a) improved variable-density groundwater flow models that provide more accurate predictions and insights into the flow, salt transport and mixing dynamics in STEs;
b) quantitative understanding of the physicochemical and temporal drivers of saline groundwater seepage and composition; and
c) better knowledge of the microbial ecology of STEs and links to marine, freshwater and terrestrial drivers of STE dynamics. Significant research effort has been devoted to address these knowledge gaps. It is now time to provide a focused synopsis of these efforts.
We propose a combination of cutting-edge original research, systematic, practice and policy reviews, methods and hypothesis and theory articles, tied together by a direction-setting perspective analysis to generate a comprehensive and accurate scientific foundation supporting environmental managers, scientists and other stakeholders to assess SGD feedbacks on coastal ecosystem functioning and resilience and implement successful coastal management policies.
Keywords: Subterranean Estuary, Groundwater Flow and Biogeochemical Dynamics, Coastal Aquifers, Groundwater-Surface Water Interactions, Biogeochemistry
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