Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 772–788 | Cite as

Alternating Effects of Climate Drivers on Altamaha River Discharge to Coastal Georgia, USA

  • Joan E. SheldonEmail author
  • Adrian B. Burd


Freshwater delivery is an important factor determining estuarine character and health and may be influenced by large-scale climate oscillations. Variability in freshwater delivery (precipitation and discharge) to the Altamaha River estuary (GA, USA) was examined in relation to indices for several climate signals: the Bermuda High Index (BHI), the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), the Improved El Niño Modoki Index (IEMI), the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and the Pacific/North American Pattern (PNA). Discharge to this estuary has been linked to key ecosystem properties (e.g., salinity regime, water residence time, nutrient inputs, and marsh processes), so understanding how climate patterns affect precipitation and river discharge will help elucidate how the estuarine ecosystem may respond to climate changes. Precipitation patterns in the Altamaha River watershed were described using empirical orthogonal functions (EOFs) of the combined multidecadal time series of precipitation at 14 stations. The first EOF (67 % of the variance) was spatially uniform, the second EOF (11 %) showed a spatial gradient along the long axis of the watershed (NW–SE), and the third EOF (6 %) showed a NE–SW pattern. We compared the principal components (PCs) associated with these EOFs, monthly standardized anomalies of Altamaha River discharge at the gauge closest to the estuary, and the climate indices. Complex, seasonally alternating patterns emerged. The BHI was correlated with June–January discharge and precipitation PC 1. The SOI was correlated with January–April discharge and precipitation PC 2, and also weakly correlated with PC 1 in November–December. The AMO was correlated with river discharge and precipitation PC 3 mainly in December–February and June. The correlation patterns of precipitation PCs with PDO and PNA were similar to those with SOI, but weaker. There were no consistent relationships with two NAO indices or IEMI. Connections between climate signals and estimates of nutrient loading were consistent with the connections to discharge. The occurrence of tropical storms in the region was strongly related to the BHI but not to the other climate indices, possibly representing the influence of storm tracking more than the rate of storm formation. Comparison with the literature suggests that the patterns found may be typical of southeastern USA estuaries but are likely to be different from those outside the region.


Climate signals Precipitation Discharge Altamaha River Estuary Tropical storms 



We thank David Stooksbury, Mark Ohman, and Merryl Alber for discussions related to these analyses, and Pam Knox for assistance in acquiring meteorological data. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation through the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research program under grant numbers OCE-9982133 and OCE-0620959.

Supplementary material

12237_2013_9715_MOESM1_ESM.doc (170 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 169 kb)


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Marine SciencesUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA

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