Impact of Storm Events on Density Stratification in the Pamlico and Albemarle Estuarine System

Tropical cyclones and other coastal storms have multiple effects on estuaries. They create storm surge, or the rise of water levels above the normal tides, which can cause flooding of coastal areas, including communities near estuaries. They can also alter ecosystems, including in estuaries with changes to nutrient loading and regeneration, abrupt changes in salinity, increases in the mixed-layer depth, decreases in sea-surface temperature, and breakdowns in water column stratification. The interactions between surge and estuarine circulation can enhance the storm effects. And with the increasing intensity of tropical cyclones, these effects will be further enhanced.

Numerical models can represent the coastal environment and its response to the combined effects of tides, river flows, and winds. It is especially challenging for numerical models to represent the response of estuaries to storms, due to the complex interactions of fresh and saline waters, and thus relatively few studies have used models to represent both storm- and density-driven circulation in estuaries. These few studies have shown that salinities and temperatures of estuaries can change significantly during storms and may require weeks to recover, depending on the amount of freshwater discharge. However, these studies have been limited in number and geographic coverage, relied on coupling to other models for baroclinic inputs, did not have the estuarine mixing and stratification as a focus, or were missing physics. Much is still uncertain about how estuarine circulation evolves during a storm event. How quickly do the horizontal salinities respond to the storm? How does the salinity transport vary through an estuary? How do freshwater discharges due to rainfall affect the mixing? Another uncertainty is the salinity response after the storm. How quickly does a system recover? Do the freshwater discharges interrupt the recovery? In this thesis, it is hypothesized that, for a large and shallow estuarine system with minimal connections to the open ocean, the storm forcing will cause large brackish and freshwater intrusions and recoveries that vary through the system.

To investigate this hypothesis, we developed a three-dimensional model of storm- and density-driven circulation in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System (APES) in North Carolina. Irene (2011) was used as the basis for storm event simulations to examine the evolution of the horizontal salinity distribution. Included in this model were hurricane-strength winds and pressures, tides, river discharges, and density circulation. Using this model, it was determined that during Irene, APES experienced movements of brackish water into the estuaries and saline water into the sounds. These movements were heavily dependent on the winds. After the stormsimulation, the large river discharges produced intrusions of fresher water into major areas of the sound, and after two weeks, the system was not fully regulated.

From this research, we have developed a better understanding of the horizontal salinity distribution of APES as well as how the system reacts to a single storm event. This research allows for future studies to consider different types of storms along with refinement of the river forcings, to understand better the full range of estuarine responses.

BA Rumbaugh (2021). “Impact of storm events on density stratification in the Pamlico and Albemarle Estuarine System,” North Carolina State University.