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Studying Underwater Water in the Land of Misty—Chincoteague Bay, Maryland

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Misty of Chincoteague
Misty of Chincoteague

From August 14 to 22, 2003, a team led by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists undertook a complex field effort to study the occurrence and chemistry of submarine ground water beneath Chincoteague Bay, MD, as a followup to earlier geophysical studies.

The area was made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 children's book (and later Disney movie) Misty of Chincoteague, about the wild horses that live on the adjacent barrier islands, Chincoteague and Assateague.

Chincoteague Bay is the site of nutrient over-enrichment that is of concern to its primary managers, the National Park Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Submarine discharge of ground water recharged in agricultural areas on land is suspected to be a major contributor of nitrogen to the bay. Nitrogen and other nutrients are, in turn, suspected of fueling blooms of macroalgae that foul boat propellers and may be smothering seagrass beds, critical nurseries for young fish, shrimp, and crabs.

The recent field study used several techniques to gather data about the submarine ground water beneath Chincoteague Bay. Offshore work consisted of drilling, geophysical logging, and sampling performed from a barge platform, augmented by onshore logging of existing wells. The maximum drilling depth reached by the barge rig was 72 ft beneath the sediment surface.

Map of the study area, along the Virginia-Maryland coast
Map of the study area.

The field team included chief scientist John Bratton and contract research assistants Sarah Kelsey and Dirk Koopmans (USGS, Geology Discipline, Woods Hole, MA); David Krantz and Abby Norton (University of Toledo, Ohio); John Earle (USGS, Water Resources Discipline, Denver, CO); and J.K. Böhlke and Craig Tobias (USGS, Water Resources Discipline, Reston, VA).

Drilling contractors from Hillis-Carnes Engineering Associates and a barge/tug pilot provided by Hi-Tide Marine Construction consistently overcame difficult mechanical, geologic, and meteorologic conditions to get the science done.

Special thanks go out to National Park Service colleagues from Assateague Island National Seashore, Brian Sturgis and Carl Zimmerman, who provided logistical support, shuttle boats, and lodging.

The fieldwork was conducted safely and efficiently and produced excellent scientific results.

spud-barge platform with tug, excavator, and drill rig
Barge: The spud-barge platform with tug, excavator, and drill rig.

Noteworthy discoveries included the presence of a plume of fully fresh ground water, more than 25 ft thick, extending more than 1/2 mi offshore along the west side of the bay (near Public Landing), a similar plume at the north end of the bay (near South Point), hypersaline brines underlying part of Assateague Island, and a widespread buried peat at the base of the bay's Holocene sediment.

Downhole gamma and electromagnetic-induction logs were obtained from eight locations.

Ground water was sampled from nine temporary subestuarine wells, surface water was sampled from eight locations, and pore water was squeezed from 35 sediment samples.

Additional analyses for age dating, nutrients, and stable isotopes will be performed over the coming months.

Wild horses graze along the roadway on Assateague Island
Ponies: Wild horses, locally known as "ponies," graze along the roadway on Assateague Island.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Lidar Mapping of Vegetation at Assateague Island National Seashore—a First Look
Dec. 2002 / Jan. 2003
USGS Research Contributes to Assateague Island Restoration—Mitigating 70 Years of Coastal Erosion Due to Ocean City Inlet Jetties
November 2002
Progress in Delineating Submarine Ground-Water Discharge in Delmarva Coastal Bays
June 2002
Groundwater Discharge to Delmarva Coastal Bays: CMG, WRD, and Surface Processes Hoverprobe Team Conduct First Open-Water Surveys
November 2000

Related Web Sites
National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
State of Maryland

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North Pacific Marine Mammal Populations Collapsing

Fieldwork Puerto Rico Trench Mapping

Water Beneath Chincoteague Bay, MD

Outreach Map-Librarians Meeting

Awards Coral Reef Fact Sheet

Staff & Center News Pacific Science Center Staff

New Research Assistant

New Administrative Assistant

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