Coral Reefs

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 457–469 | Cite as

Meteorologic, oceanographic, and geomorphic controls on circulation and residence time in a coral reef-lined embayment: Faga’alu Bay, American Samoa

  • C. D. Storlazzi
  • O. M. Cheriton
  • A. M. Messina
  • T. W. Biggs


Water circulation over coral reefs can determine the degree to which reef organisms are exposed to the overlying waters, so understanding circulation is necessary to interpret spatial patterns in coral health. Because coral reefs often have high geomorphic complexity, circulation patterns and the duration of exposure, or “local residence time” of a water parcel, can vary substantially over small distances. Different meteorologic and oceanographic forcings can further alter residence time patterns over reefs. Here, spatially dense Lagrangian surface current drifters and Eulerian current meters were used to characterize circulation patterns and resulting residence times over different regions of the reefs in Faga’alu Bay, American Samoa, during three distinct forcing periods: calm, strong winds, and large waves. Residence times varied among different geomorphic zones of the reef and were reflected in the spatially varying health of the corals across the embayment. The relatively healthy, seaward fringing reef consistently had the shortest residence times, as it was continually flushed by wave breaking at the reef crest, whereas the degraded, sheltered, leeward fringing reef consistently had the longest residence times, suggesting this area is more exposed to land-based sources of pollution. Strong wind forcing resulted in the longest residence times by pinning the water in the bay, whereas large wave forcing flushed the bay and resulted in the shortest residence times. The effect of these different forcings on residence times was fairly consistent across all reef geomorphic zones, with the shift from wind to wave forcing shortening mean residence times by approximately 50%. Although ecologically significant to the coral organisms in the nearshore reef zones, these shortened residence times were still 2–3 times longer than those associated with the seaward fringing reef across all forcing conditions, demonstrating how the geomorphology of a reef environment sets a first-order control on reef health.


Coral reefs Water circulation Residence time Tides Waves Winds Lagrangian drifters 



This work was carried out in collaboration between San Diego State University and the US Geological Survey’s Coral Reef Project. Funding was provided by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program Grant NA13NOS4820025 and the US Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Geology Program. We would like to thank Michael Favazza for providing field logistical support. We would also like to thank Liv Herdman (USGS) and two anonymous reviewers who contributed excellent suggestions and timely reviews of our work. The use of trademark names does not imply USGS endorsement of products.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

338_2018_1671_MOESM1_ESM.docx (27 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 27 kb)


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Copyright information

© US Government 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. D. Storlazzi
    • 1
  • O. M. Cheriton
    • 1
  • A. M. Messina
    • 2
  • T. W. Biggs
    • 2
  1. 1.US Geological Survey, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science CenterSanta CruzUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeographySan Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA

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