Submarine Groundwater Discharge Estimates Using Radium Isotopes and Related Nutrient Inputs into Tauranga Harbour (New Zealand)

  • Benjamin T. Stewart
  • Karin R. Bryan
  • Conrad A. Pilditch
  • Isaac R. Santos


Land-based pollutants such as fertilizers and wastewater can infiltrate into aquifers and discharge into surrounding coastal water bodies as submarine groundwater discharge (SGD). Oceanic islands, with a large coast length to land area ratio, may be hot spots of SGD into the global ocean. Although SGD may be a major pathway of dissolved nutrients, carbon and metals to coastal waters, studies have been limited due to the difficulties in measuring this often diffuse process. This study used radium isotopes (223Ra, 224Ra, 226Ra) to investigate SGD and the associated fluxes of nutrients into Tauranga Harbour, New Zealand. We calculated the apparent water mass ages of the harbour to be between ~4.1 and 7.8 days, which was similar to a previous numerical model of ~2–8 days. A 226Ra mass balance was constructed to quantify SGD fluxes at the harbour scale. A minimum SGD flux rate of 0.53 cm day−1 was calculated by using the maximum groundwater end-member value from 22 sample sites. However, using the geometric mean from these samples as a representative end-member, a final value of 2.83 cm day−1 or a flux of 3.09 × 106 m3 day−1 was calculated. These values were between ~1 and 2.8 times greater than all the major river and creeks discharging into the harbour during the sampling period. Due to the higher observed nutrient concentrations in groundwater, the SGD-derived dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) and total dissolved phosphorus (TDP) fluxes were calculated to be 1.07, 0.87 and 0.05 mmol m2 day−1, respectively. These SGD inputs were ~5 times (for nitrogen) and ~8 times (for phosphorus) greater than the input from surrounding rivers and streams. The average N:P ratio in groundwater samples was 36:1 (which was greatly in excess of the Redfield ratio of 16). The harbour water had a N:P ratio of ~17:1. A positive relationship between radium isotopes and N:P ratios in the harbour further supported the hypothesis that SGD can have major implications for primary production, including recurrent algal bloom events which occur in the harbour. We suggest SGD as a major driver of nutrient dynamics in Tauranga Harbour and potentially other similar coastal lagoon systems and estuaries on oceanic islands.


Volcanic island Radium Subterranean estuary Nitrogen Nitrate 


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin T. Stewart
    • 1
  • Karin R. Bryan
    • 1
  • Conrad A. Pilditch
    • 1
  • Isaac R. Santos
    • 2
  1. 1.School of ScienceUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  2. 2.National Marine Science Centre, School of Environment, Science and EngineeringSouthern Cross UniversityCoffs HarbourAustralia

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