Modeling river plume dynamics with the HYbrid Coordinate Ocean Model

Rafael V. Schiller, Vassiliki H. Kourafalou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


The dynamics of large-scale river plumes are investigated in idealized numerical experiments using the HYbrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM). The focus of this study is to address how the development and structure of a buoyant plume are affected by the outflow properties, as impacted by processes within the estuary and at the point of discharge to the coastal basin. Changes in the outflow properties involved vertical and horizontal redistribution of the river inflow and enhanced vertical mixing inside an idealized estuary. The development of the buoyant plume was evaluated in a rectangular, f-plane basin with flat and sloping bottom conditions and in the absence of other external forcing. The general behavior of a mid-latitude river plume was reproduced, with the development of a surface anticyclonic bulge off the estuary mouth and a surface along-shore coastal current which flows in the direction of Kelvin wave propagation (" downstream" ); the momentum balance was predominantly geostrophic. Conditions within the estuary and the outflow properties at the river mouth (where observed profiles may be available) greatly impacted the fate of riverine waters. In flat bottom conditions, larger mixing at the freshwater source enhanced the estuarine gravitational circulation, promoting larger upward entrainment and stronger outflow velocities. Although the overall geostrophic balance was maintained, estuarine mixing led to an asymmetry of the currents reaching the river mouth and to a sharp anticyclonic veering within the estuary, resulting in reduced upstream flow and enhanced downstream coastal current. These patterns were altered when the plumes evolved in the presence of a bottom slope. The anticyclonic veering of the buoyant outflow was suppressed, the offshore intrusion decreased and the recirculating bulge was displaced upstream. The sloping bottom impacts were accompanied by enhanced transport and increased downstream extent of the coastal current in most cases. No major changes in the general properties and especially the vertical structure of the plumes were observed when the vertical coordinates were changed from cartesian-isopycnal, to sigma or to sigma-isopycnal. The findings offer a benchmark for coastal studies with HYCOM, where plume dynamics should be examined in tandem with additional circulation forcing mechanisms, resulting in transitions of the vertical coordinate system that are dictated by the prevailing dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-117
Number of pages17
JournalOcean Modelling
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2010


  • Coastal processes
  • Numerical modeling
  • River plumes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)
  • Oceanography
  • Geotechnical Engineering and Engineering Geology
  • Atmospheric Science


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