Dispersion effects on the freshwater–seawater interface in subsea aquifers

Silvia C. Solórzano-Rivas, Adrian D. Werner, Dylan J. Irvine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent recognition of the widespread occurrence of freshwater beneath the ocean has renewed interest in approaches to understand and predict its extent. The most straightforward methodologies are based on the sharp-interface approximation, which neglects dispersive mechanisms. The understanding of dispersion effects on freshwater extents in coastal aquifers is based almost entirely on onshore aquifer situations. This study explores dispersion in offshore coastal aquifers, in terms of the steady-state freshwater extent, seawater circulation and freshwater discharge, through numerical experimentation. Results show that increasing dispersion causes a seaward shift in the interface toe location, as expected, whereas the interface tip shows a non-monotonic relationship with dispersion that depends on the contrast between aquifer and aquitard hydraulic conductivities. Higher dispersion leads to enhanced seawater recirculation rates and freshwater discharge, as opposed to non-monotonic relationships obtained previously for onshore aquifers. The mixing zone at the toe widens as dispersion increases, similar to onshore cases, whereas the mixing zone at the tip has a surprisingly non-monotonic relationship with dispersion. The dispersion relationships revealed in this study can be explained by counteractions between dispersion, density and advective forces, and refraction across the aquifer-aquitard interface, which in combination produce offshore aquifer behaviour that differs, in some ways, to the manner in which onshore aquifers respond to dispersive processes. Consequently, previous empirical corrections to sharp-interface methods (to account for dispersive effects) applied to onshore coastal aquifers are ineffective in their application to offshore settings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-197
Number of pages14
JournalAdvances in Water Resources
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes


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