Importance of salinity-induced stratification on flocculation in tidal estuaries


Flocculation of suspended particles in tidal estuaries exhibits large spatiotemporal variability due to an interplay of various physical and biogeochemical drivers. Salinity (S) is known to promote flocculation of fine-grained suspended particulate matter (SPM). However, the influence of salinity and salinity-induced stratification on flocculation has not been sufficiently investigated yet. This study aims to understand how these two factors, interactively with turbulent shear (G) and SPM concentration (C), control the vertical variation of floc size and flocculation process in different depth layers in a typical tide-dominated estuarine environment. Analysis of field observation data shows that flocculi (diameter < 20 μm) are mainly affected by C and originate primarily from local resuspension. Macroflocs (> 200 μm) are mainly controlled by stratification that greatly improves aggregate collision efficiency; Microflocs (20-200 μm), as a transition group between flocculi and macroflocs, are affected by dynamics of both sides. They are influenced jointly by C, G and stratification. Besides, the fresh water-dominated surface layer is dominated by small particles (flocculi and microflocs), confined in a relatively narrow particle size range between Ο (100) and Ο (101) as a result of the low level of both C (13-20 mg/L) and S (< 2 practical salinity units). Below the surface layer, floc size increases drastically along with an increased salinity-induced density gradient and achieves maximum particle size (Ο (102)) within the stratified layer. Because of its high efficiency in promoting flocculation and formation of macroflocs, the stratified layer around the halocline can be regarded as an optimal flocculation zone. The benthic layer is characterized by high C (> 30 mg/L), gentle G (∼5/s), and periodic stratification, which result in a wide size range between Ο (101) and Ο (102) with microflocs as the dominant group. Finally, we found that the accuracy of flocculation modeling can be significantly improved by integrating a simple relationship between particle collision and stratification.
QR Code: Link to publication