Submarine groundwater discharge

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Submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) can have a significant influence on the coastal environment. This article examines the underlying processes and the importance of submarine groundwater discharge for coastal zone management. SGD is the discharge of groundwater going directly into the sea, and not via surface streams. Groundwater is synonymous with soil pore water. In order to assess the magnitude of SGD, different investigations based on models and on direct measurements have been carried out. Indirect indicators of SGD are also considered.

Process description and estimates

Submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) is defined as the discharging flow out of the aquifer across the sea floor [1]. It is a process complementary to saltwater intrusion, which is defined as the invasion of seawater at the lower part of the aquifer due to the density difference between fresh groundwater and seawater, see Groundwater management in low-lying coastal zones. The processes are shown schematically in Figures 1a and 1b.

If mixing between fresh groundwater and the seawater wedge is weak, it can be assumed that the interface between the two areas is sharp (Figure 1a). In such cases, during the winter period, the submarine fresh groundwater flows to the sea above the saltwater wedge, and the interface is located more landward than in summer, assuming that the groundwater levels occurring in fall are relatively low. During summer, the interface moves seaward, assuming a rise of the groundwater level during spring, while, simultaneously with fresh groundwater discharge, seawater outflow takes place from the saltwater wedge. The seawater outflow is generally much greater than the fresh groundwater discharge [2].

Fig 1a Exchange fluxes in case of sharp interface between groundwater and seawater for high and low groundwater levels

In most cases, the interface between the freshwater and the saltwater is not sharp. Due to dispersion and molecular diffusion a freshwater-seawater mixing zone is built between the two areas. The mixing causes the salt water in the deeper part of the aquifer to become lighter, rise up and discharge back to the sea (Figure 1b). In this case, SGD consists of a mixture of fresh groundwater and recirculated seawater. The recirculation of seawater, in the nearshore part of the aquifer, is further enhanced by mechanisms acting from the marine side such as tidal pumping and wave set-up. The time variation of SGD exhibits components at small time scales (minutes, hours, days) as well as components of large time scale, which are due to the seasonal motion of the mixing zone and large-scale sea level variations. Because aquifer recharge is faster than aquifer discharge, seawater infiltration by waves and tides creates an over-height of the groundwater table (pumping effect). This over-height can exceed, during storm conditions, all other geophysical drivers of fluid flow across the sediment-water interface (Sawyer et al., 2013[3]).

Fig 1b Exchange fluxes in case of mixing between fresh groundwater and seawater

Concerning the contribution of the fresh groundwater flow and the seawater recirculation to the total SGD, it is estimated that:

  • The global total SGD flux, which includes recirculated seawater, could be three to four times larger than the global river flux, based on measured radium isotope concentrations in seawater (Kwon et al., 2014[4].) The terrestrially derived SGD was estimated by Burnett et al. (2003[5]) in the range of 6-10% of the surface waters discharging into the ocean. However, more recent calculations by Luijendijk et al. (2020[6]) show that the submarine groundwater discharge of terrestrial origin cannot exceed 5.5% of the river input into the world’s oceans, assuming that all groundwater recharge in coastal watersheds were to discharge directly into the oceans. Sawyer et al. (2016[7]) estimate that the total volumetric rate of fresh SGD from the contiguous United States to the oceans may amount to 25 ± 7 cubic km/year, or 1-2% of surface runoff.
  • Assuming that recirculation is only due to density effects and mixing, recirculated seawater can be up to 70% of the SGD (Smith, 2004[8]; Kaleris, 2006[9]);
  • Assuming that recirculation is also due to wave setup and tide, the recirculated sea water may constitute up to 96% of the SGD (Li et al. 1999[10]). However, Luijendijk et al.[6] estimate that the fresh SGD is even a much smaller fraction, 0.06% (0.0003%–0.2%), of the global total SGD flux, which thus consists almost entirely of recirculated seawater. According to these authors, the contribution of fresh groundwater discharge to the oceans is globally in the order of ~0.6% (0.004%–1.3%) of the total freshwater input and ~2% (0.003%–7.7%) of the solute input for carbon, nitrogen, silica and strontium.
Fig. 2. Example of “sand boils”, where freshwater is flowing out of the sediment.

Submarine groundwater pathways

Submarine groundwater flow is usually three dimensional and highly complex due to the patchy nature of burrows, subtle geomorphological gradients, and heterogeneous sediments and vegetation. It is distributed over large areas, but particularly strong, concentrated, submarine groundwater discharges occur in case of karstic aquifers discharging into the sea (karstic submarine springs). Fault lines or fracture patterns and submarine paleochannels, infilled with permeable sediments, are also preferential pathways of SGD (Taniguchi et al., 2019[11]). Submarine groundwater discharge can take place not only near the shore but also at great offshore distances. The latter occurs when confined aquifers, underneath the continental shelf, have their outcrop on the sea bottom and at a large distance from the shore. Concentrated outflows at the sea bottom occur in cases where the outcrops of alluvial aquifers are of limited area. Such outflow locations on the sea bottom sometimes form pockmarks in the fine-grained sediments of the sea floor, see Fig. 2.

Coastal groundwater discharge hotspots cover 9% (0.02–30)% of the global coastline and are predominantly located in areas with a steep coastal topography due to glacio-isostatic rebound, active tectonics or volcanic activity and areas consisting of permeable unconsolidated sediments, carbonates or volcanic rocks. The distribution of hotspots is consistent with documented sites of high fresh groundwater discharge globally that are predominantly located in North America, Europe, and East Asia (Luijendijk et al., 2019[6]).

The investigation of subsurface geological structures by seismic profiling can be instructive to determine the geological origin of SGD and its flow paths. Geoelectrical methods are useful to determine the subsurface soil structure and groundwater salinity and distribution. Geoelectric instrumentation consist of an array of multiple electrodes, either directly inserted into the ground deployed on the sediment surface or, in some cases, towed behind a boat. For further details, see Groundwater modelling and observation.

Impact on coastal water quality

The study of Luijendijk et al. (2019[6]), which is based on numerical modeling, reveals a high spatial variability of the coastal discharge of fresh groundwater and nutrients. For an estimated 26% (0.4%–39%) of the world’s estuaries, 17% (0.3%–31%) of the salt marshes and 14% (0.1–26%) of the coral reefs, the flux of terrestrial groundwater exceeds 25% of the river flux and poses a risk for pollution and eutrophication.

Submarine groundwater discharge has been recognized in the last decades as an important mechanism for transporting land derived pollutants to the sea (Moore, 1996[12]). Nutrient input through submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) rivals river inputs in certain regions and may play a significant role in nutrient cycling and primary productivity in the coastal ocean (Slomp and Van Cappellen, 2004[13]). The biogeochemistry of groundwater is generally more dominated by anoxic conditions than surface flow, in which case SGD has increased proportions of bioavailable ammonium. Although different biogeochemical processes can remove nitrogen, the N:P ratio in organic-rich groundwater is often higher than the Redfield ratio (16:1). This is due to net production of non-conservative nitrate through mineralization of organic matter and adsorption of non-conservative phosphorus (P) onto sediment (Robinson et al., 2018[14]).

Benthic and water column primary production can be enhanced in outflow areas of submarine groundwater. For example, observations in intertidal groundwater outflow areas show changes in microbiological communities and proliferation of benthic animals, including mussels (Leitao et al., 2015[15]; Welti et al., 2015[16]; Taniguchi et al., 2019[11]). Conversely, excess nutrient loadings via polluted groundwater into coastal seas may cause eutrophication, harmful blooms and green tides (Cho et al., 2019[17]).

SGD does not only discharge nutrients, but also dissolved metals and pathogens. The effect is enhanced by the recirculated seawater which is enriched with pollutants as it reacts with the aquifer sediment. Due to the long travel times of the groundwater, it can take decades for nutrients to be transported through the aquifer from their source to the ocean; the submarine groundwater discharge can therefore carry a long contamination history. This pollution legacy can be compounded with metal and organic contaminants that are mobilized from the sediment as a result of salt intrusion into the aquifer (Robinson et al., 2018[14]).

The pollutant concentration in the nearshore water and its impact on the chemistry and biology of this area depend not only on the pollutant fluxes but also on the intensity of mixing and the exchange with the open ocean. Thus, in order to determine whether SGD in an area of interest is of actual or probable importance, estimates must be determined of:

  • the magnitude of submarine groundwater discharge and
  • the intensity of mixing in the nearshore sea area and the exchange between the nearshore sea and the open ocean.

Methods for estimating the magnitude of SGD

Complementing several ongoing studies addressing the problem of submarine groundwater discharge estimation, an initiative was launched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UNESCO in 2000 to assess the importance of SGD and the effectiveness of prediction methodologies for coastal zone management. The results of the projects undertaken in the framework of this initiative were presented in SCOR-LOICZ (2004) as well as in Burnett et al. (2006 [1]). A comprehensive report concerning current knowledge about SGD was presented by Gallardo and Marui (2006 [18]).

The methods to estimate SGD can be distinguished in:

  • (a) model investigations and
  • (b) experimental investigations.

Model studies

These investigations involve hydrogeological methods based on the water balance approach and numerical models.

In the water balance approach, the estimation of SGD is based on the water balance equation at the basin scale. For extended periods (i.e. years), over which the change of water storage can be neglected, precipitation, evapotranspiration and surface discharge must be accurately known in order to reliably estimate SGD. The water balance approach only provides the fresh groundwater component of SGD as the total volume of groundwater discharging to the sea during the selected time period. Thus, the results of the water balance approach are not comparable with locally measured values or with results of numerical models that provide the distribution of SGD over the discharge area. An example of the water balance approach is the work of Sekulic and Vertacnik (1996 [19]), who estimated SGD in the Adriatic Sea.

Numerical models used in submarine groundwater discharge studies differ in the degree of complexity. Groundwater models neglecting density effects, as for instance MODFLOW [20], have been widely used. They provide only the freshwater component of SGD and can appropriately simulate the flow in the part of the coastal aquifer upstream of the saltwater intrusion area. SGD in such simulations is the groundwater flux at the seaward model boundary, assuming that there is no groundwater extraction in the area downstream of this boundary up to the shore. The collection of the data needed for the model calibration requires a considerable effort and it is time consuming, particularly for the parameters varying in time such as water levels and fluxes. However, in areas in which such data are available, these numerical models represent an efficient tool for the estimation of the freshwater part of SGD.

More recently, numerical models considering density effects have been applied in SGD studies (an extensive review of such models can be found in Bear et al. 1999 [21]). These models include the nearshore terrestrial part of the aquifer as well as the marine part below the sea floor, where density effects are relevant. They provide both the fresh groundwater discharge and the discharge of the seawater recirculated in the aquifer. Their application is feasible only if subsoil data are available. However, particularly for the part of the aquifer below the sea floor, the collection of such data is difficult. Therefore applications of such models, as those presented by Smith and Turner (2001 [22]), Kaleris (2002 [23]), Langevin (2003 [24]) and Destouni and Prieto (2003 [25]), are limited.

Luijendijk et al. (2020[6]) simulated submarine and terrestrial groundwater discharge in coastal groundwater systems using a numerical model of coupled density-driven groundwater flow and solute transport that solved the fluid flow and solute transport equations and the equations of state for fluid density and viscosity in a two-dimensional cross section of the subsurface. The model simulated the flow of fresh (meteoric) groundwater, the mixing and recirculation of seawater at the fresh-salt water interface and the onshore and offshore discharge of groundwater. Assumed were a constant linear slope and a fully saturated standard aquifer of 100 m thickness, which is roughly equal to the thickness where globally the majority of young groundwater and active groundwater circulates. For the global model, 40,082 coastal watersheds were selected using global watershed and coastline datasets. Permeability of each coastal watershed was extracted from a global dataset of near-surface permeability. Comparison between modeled and measured average hydraulic gradients in 336 coastal watersheds showed that the model provides a realistic estimate of coastal groundwater flow. The model outcome for the global fresh submarine groundwater discharge is lower than estimates of earlier studies. The authors explain why the fresh submarine groundwater flow in previous studies is often overestimated; this is the case, for example, when a large part of the overall groundwater recharge is not discharged by SGD but by surface flows.

Experimental studies

The most important experimental methods for investigation of submarine groundwater discharge are seepage measuring techniques and the use of geochemical tracers such as radium isotopes and radon, which are both enriched in groundwater relative to seawater.

An overview of different types of seepage meters used to measure SGD at the bottom of the sea, as well as conclusions concerning their applicability in the field, have been presented by Taniguchi et al. (2003 [26] and 2019[11]). Seepage meters provide local SGD values because of the variability of the hydraulic properties of the sea bottom material and the relatively small area (usually <<1m2), over which SGD is measured. Taking into consideration the variability of SGD in time, it can be concluded that in order to obtain representative values of SGD for a shore, which can be a few kilometres long, a large number of measurements at different locations and at different times must be performed. The results of seepage meter applications and comparisons of various methods have been presented by Burnett et al. (2006 [1]). Another measuring tool is described in Submarine groundwater discharge in coastal regions: development of a new sampling technique.

Radon (222Rn, half time = 3.8 days) is produced by the decay of radioactive isotopes in the sediments. It is therefore strongly enriched both in the freshwater part as well as in the recirculated part of submarine groundwater discharge relative to coastal marine waters [27]. Automated measurement methods allow for easy time-series and spatial survey measurements. However, freshwater and recirculated parts of SGD can hardly be distinguished through radon measurements. To what extent a nearshore water sample used to measure radon activity, provides representative values for a larger part of the nearshore water body, depends on the degree of mixing of SGD with the surface water.

Radium is adsorbed onto the surface of the geologic materials and is immobile in fresh groundwater. When saltwater intrudes the aquifer and replaces freshwater in the pores, radium is desorbed from sediment and becomes mobile (Moore, 1996[12]). Thus, radium is transferred to the nearshore seawater primarily by the recirculated seawater actively involved in saltwater intrusion (Oberdorfer, 2003[27]). Since this water discharges into the sea mixed with the fresh groundwater, it is not possible, as in case of radon, to distinguish the portions of fresh groundwater and seawater in SGD.

Kwon et al. (2014[4]) determined the submarine groundwater discharge from a global compilation of 228Ra observations, by using an inverse model. They found that the SGD integrated over the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Oceans between 60°S and 70°N is (12 ± 3).104 km3/yr, which is 3 to 4 times greater than the freshwater fluxes into the oceans by rivers. Although this discharge consists mainly of seawater flowing back to the ocean, it is enriched during its temporary invasion of the coastal aquifer with trace elements, rare earth elements, nutrients, and dissolved inorganic and organic carbon through biogeochemical reactions. This suggests that SGD is an important pathway for dissolved terrestrial materials to the coastal waters.

An overview of the technologies developed for the measurement of radon and radium activities, advantages and disadvantages of the methods as well as applications for the estimation of submarine groundwater discharge, can be found in Burnett et al. (2006 [1]).

Indirect indicators of SGD

Application of the methods described above involves considerable financial, labor and/or computational effort. Thus, before such methods are applied in coastal zone management studies, it is important to determine if the magnitude of submarine groundwater discharge is relevant. Results of investigations presented in the literature can hardly help in such assessments as they vary widely. High seepage values (above 100 cm per day and unit outflow area) as well as low values (below 5 cm per day and unit outflow area) have been observed Burnett et al. (2006 [1]). A way to determine locations of SGD and the importance of SGD in an area, is to use indirect indicators (SCOR-LOIZ, 2004[28]; Taniguchi, 2019[11]), for example:

  • The groundwater escaping from the sea bottom might be coloured by tiny gas bubbles.
  • Surrounding sediment might be stained red by the oxidation of iron.
  • There are cold-water anomalies in the open water during the summer and warm-water anomalies in winter as well as salinity anomalies; plumes of buoyant low-density (fresh/brackish) groundwater can be detected with digital thermal infrared cameras mounted on light aircraft or on drones. The typical temperature resolution is about 0.1 oC and the spatial resolution about 0.5 m.
  • The levels of radium, radon, methane, hydrogen sulphide or carbon dioxide might be elevated.
  • Stable nitrogen isotope ratios ([math]\delta^{15}[/math]N) of primary producers can be useful in detecting the direct linkage between groundwater inputs and marine organisms when the dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) of groundwater is isotopically distinct from other DIN sources.

Mixing in the nearshore sea

The concentration of pollutants, transferred to the nearshore sea area by submarine groundwater discharge, depends on the intensity of mixing in this area, which is due to hydrodynamic circulation, transport and dispersion. The estimation of the pollutant concentration in the nearshore sea using numerical models, which simulate the forementioned processes, is computationally intensive and requires data, which in many cases are not readily available. A more convenient approach is to use cell models (well-mixed reservoir models).

An application of a cell model is given by Uchiyama et al. (2000 [29]), who investigated the nutrient concentration in the nearshore sea due to SGD. They found that the long-term pollutant concentration depends on the relationship between the pollutant fluxes due to SGD and the exchange flux between the nearshore sea and the open ocean. For the conditions of the investigated case, these authors further found that the volumetric exchange flux between the nearshore sea and the open ocean is three orders of magnitude larger than the SGD flux. Thus, the long term pollutant concentrations, resulting under the assumption that the pollution of the open ocean water is negligible, were found to be of minor importance for the nearshore sea environment.

For estimations of the exchange of water between the nearshore sea (surf zone) and the offshore zone, a relatively simple model presented by Inman et al. (1971 [30]) can be used. The data required are the wave and beach characteristics (breaker height, breaker angle, beach slope in the surf zone, beach slope offshore). For open beaches, typical wave and beach characteristics, it is probable that the water exchange between the surf zone and the offshore strongly dilutes pollutants transported in the surf zone by submarine groundwater discharge, for usual values of SGD (5-50 cm/day) as reported in Burnett et al. (2006 [1]), Gallardo and Marui (2006 [18]) and Gilfedder et al. (2021[31]). However, in semi-closed bays or in nearshore seas with weak wave action and circulation, it can be shown using cell models, that the long term pollutant concentration in the nearshore environment due to the impact of SGD is not negligible. In such cases, measures to reduce the pollutant load of groundwater are required.

See also

Submarine groundwater discharge in coastal regions: development of a new sampling technique
Groundwater management in low-lying coastal zones


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The main author of this article is Vassilios Kaleris
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Citation: Vassilios Kaleris (2021): Submarine groundwater discharge. Available from [accessed on 18-07-2024]