Transport Processes in the Gulf of Mexico Along the River-Estuary-Shelf-Ocean Continuum: A Review of Research from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative

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Marine Science


Ocean Science and Engineering


Estuarine and coastal geomorphology, biogeochemistry, water quality, and coastal food webs in river-dominated shelves of the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) are modulated by transport processes associated with river inputs, winds, waves, tides, and deep-ocean/continental shelf interactions. For instance, transport processes control the fate of river-borne sediments, which in turn affect coastal land loss. Similarly, transport of freshwater, nutrients, and carbon control the dynamics of eutrophication, hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, and coastal acidification. Further, freshwater inflow transports pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and oil into receiving estuaries and coastal systems. Lastly, transport processes along the continuum from the rivers and estuaries to coastal and shelf areas and adjacent open ocean (abbreviated herein as “river-estuary-shelf-ocean”) regulate the movements of organisms, including the spatial distributions of individuals and the exchange of genetic information between distinct subpopulations. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) provided unprecedented opportunities to study transport processes along the river-estuary-shelf-ocean continuum in the GoM. The understanding of transport at multiple spatial and temporal scales in this topographically and dynamically complex marginal sea was improved, allowing for more accurate forecasting of the fate of oil and other constituents. For this review, we focus on five specific transport themes: (i) wetland, estuary, and shelf exchanges; (ii) river-estuary coupling; (iii) nearshore and inlet processes; (iv) open ocean transport processes; and (v) river-induced fronts and cross-basin transport. We then discuss the relevancy of GoMRI findings on the transport processes for ecological connectivity and oil transport and fate. We also examine the implications of new findings for informing the response to future oil spills, and the management of coastal resources and ecosystems. Lastly, we summarize the research gaps identified in the many studies and offer recommendations for continuing the momentum of the research provided by the GoMRI effort. A number of uncertainties were identified that occurred in multiple settings. These include the quantification of sediment, carbon, dissolved gasses and nutrient fluxes during storms, consistent specification of the various external forcings used in analyses, methods for smooth integration of multiscale advection mechanisms across different flow regimes, dynamic coupling of the atmosphere with sub-mesoscale and mesoscale phenomena, and methods for simulating finer-scale dynamics over long time periods. Addressing these uncertainties would allow the scientific community to be better prepared to predict the fate of hydrocarbons and their impacts to the coastal ocean, rivers, and marshes in the event of another spill in the GoM.

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Estuaries and Coasts



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