Internal waves influence the thermal and nutrient environment on a shallow coral reef

Emma C. Reid, Thomas M. DeCarlo, Anne L. Cohen, George T.F. Wong, Steven J. Lentz, Aryan Safaie, Austin Hall, Kristen A. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

20 Citations (Scopus)


Internal waves can influence water properties in coastal ecosystems through the shoreward transport and mixing of subthermocline water into the nearshore region. In June 2014, a field experiment was conducted at Dongsha Atoll in the northern South China Sea to study the impact of internal waves on a coral reef. Instrumentation included a distributed temperature sensing system, which resolved spatially and temporally continuous temperature measurements over a 4-km cross-reef section from the lagoon to 50-m depth on the fore reef. Our observations show that during summer, internal waves shoaling on the shallow atoll regularly transport cold, nutrient-rich water shoreward, altering near-surface water properties on the fore reef. This water is transported shoreward of the reef crest by tides, breaking surface waves and wind-driven flow, where it significantly alters the water temperature and nutrient concentrations on the reef flat. We find that without internal wave forcing on the fore reef, temperatures on the reef flat could be up to 2.0°C ± 0.2°C warmer. Additionally, we estimate a change in degree heating weeks of 0.7°C-weeks warmer without internal waves, which significantly increases the probability of a more severe bleaching event occurring at Dongsha Atoll. Furthermore, using nutrient samples collected on the fore reef during the study, we estimated that instantaneous onshore nitrate flux is about four-fold higher with internal waves than without internal waves. This work highlights the importance of internal waves as a physical mechanism shaping the nearshore environment, and likely supporting resilience of the reef.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1949-1965
Number of pages17
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2019

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