Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 977–993 | Cite as

Suspended-Sediment Impacts on Light-Limited Productivity in the Delaware Estuary

  • Jacqueline M. McSweeney
  • Robert J. Chant
  • John L. Wilkin
  • Christopher K. Sommerfield


The Delaware Estuary has a history of high anthropogenic nutrient loadings but has been classified as a high-nutrient, low-growth system due to persistent light limitation caused by turbidity. While the biogeochemical implications of light limitation in turbid estuaries have been well-studied, there has been minimal effort focused on the connectivity between hydrodynamics, sediment dynamics, and light limitation. Our understanding of sediment dynamics in the Delaware Estuary has advanced significantly in the last decade, and this study describes the impact of spatiotemporal variability of the estuarine turbidity maximum (ETM) on light-limited productivity. This analysis uses data from eight along-estuary cruises from March, June, September, and December 2010 and 2011 to evaluate the impact of the turbidity maximum on production. Whereas the movement of the ETM is controlled primarily by river discharge, the structure of the ETM is modulated by stratification, which varies with both river discharge and spring-neap conditions. We observe that the ETM’s location and structure control spatial patterns of light availability. To evaluate the relative contributions of river discharge and spring-neap variability to the location of phytoplankton blooms, we develop an idealized two-dimensional Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) numerical model. We conclude that high river flows and neap tides can drive stratification that is strong enough to prevent sediment from being resuspended into the surface layer, thus providing light conditions favorable for primary production. This study sheds light on the role of stratification in controlling sediment resuspension and promoting production, highlighting the potential limitations of biogeochemical models that neglect sediment processes.


Sediment Light-limited productivity Turbid estuaries Spatiotemporal variability 



We thank Eli Hunter, Maria Aristizábal, Anna Hermes, and the R/V Hugh Sharp crew for their dedication to the field campaign. Special thanks are due to Aboozar Tabatabai and Alex López for their helpful feedback regarding the model development. We appreciate feedback from two anonymous reviewers, whose suggestions significantly improved the manuscript. Data collection was funded through National Science Foundation grants OCE-0928567 and OCE-0825833 to R. Chant and OCE-0928496 to C. Sommerfield. This material is also based upon work supported by the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant no. DGE-0937373. The data collected in this study and the model output can be accessed at or by contacting Jacqueline McSweeney at


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jacqueline M. McSweeney
    • 1
  • Robert J. Chant
    • 1
  • John L. Wilkin
    • 1
  • Christopher K. Sommerfield
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, RutgersThe State University of New JerseyNew BrunswickUSA
  2. 2.School of Marine Science and PolicyUniversity of DelawareLewesUSA

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