Breathing of a coral cay: tracing tidally driven seawater recirculation in permeable coral reef sediments

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Santos, IR, Erler, DV, Tait, D & Eyre, BD 2010, 'Breathing of a coral cay: tracing tidally driven seawater recirculation in permeable coral reef sediments', Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, vol. 115, no. C12, C12010.

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[1] Coral reefs are characterized by high gross productivity in spite of low nutrient concentrations. This apparent paradox may be partially reconciled if seawater recirculation in permeable sediments over large (meters) and long (hours to days) scales is an important source of recycled nitrogen and phosphorus to coral reefs. In this paper we use radon (222Rn, a natural tracer) to quantify tidally driven pore water (or groundwater) exchange between (1) an offshore coral cay island and its fringing reef lagoon and (2) a reef lagoon and the surrounding ocean. As seawater infiltrates Heron Island at high tide, it acquires a radon signal that can be detected when pore waters emerge from carbonate sands at low tide. A nonsteady state model indicated that vertical pore water upwelling rates (or saline submarine groundwater discharge) were >40 cm/d within the reef lagoon and >100 cm/d outside the lagoon at low tide. Within the lagoon, tidal pumping and temperature-driven convection were the main driving forces of pore water advection. At low tide, the reef lagoon level is about 1 m higher than the surrounding ocean. As a result, a steep hydraulic gradient develops at the reef edge, driving unidirectional filtration through the reef framework. Groundwaters were highly enriched in nitrate (average of 530 μmol, likely influenced by bird guano) relative to lagoon waters (1.9 μmol). Rough but conservative estimates indicated that groundwater-derived nitrate fluxes (7.9 mmol/m2/d) can replace the entire lagoon nitrate inventory every“breath” (inhale seawater at high tide and exhale groundwater at low tide), they release nutrients that lead to sustained productivity within coral reefs.

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