Numerical simulation of the effects of sea level rise on estuarine processes

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The increasing concentration of carbon monoxide and other gases in the earth’s atmosphere is expected to cause temperatures on earth to increase. This condition, known as the greenhouse effect, could cause the sea level to rise due to the partial melting of the polar icecaps and the thermal expansion of the oceans. Such a rise in the sea level would affect the tides, currents, and sediment and salinity distributions within estuaries.

To see the nature of these effects, a parametric study was performed on the Rappahannock River in Virginia with a two-dimensional, laterally averaged, time-dependent numerical model which simulates the movement of water and suspended sediment in the estuary. The model is a systematic sequence of mathematical procedures derived from the mass-balance equation and the equation of motion. These equations are solved through an explicit finite difference scheme.

The astronomical tide, the increased height of the sea level due to the greenhouse effect and the additional tidal height due to a storm surge form the boundary conditions at the mouth of the river. Freshwater streamflows constitute the boundary condition at the upstream end of the estuary. A frequency analysis is performed for both the freshwater streamflows and the tidal heights. A procedure is developed which allows one to calculate the return period for various combinations of streamflow and tidal height.

The results from each run of the estuary model are reviewed to study the tidal hydraulics and the longitudinal and vertical distributions of the sediment and salinity with and without the sea level rise.