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USGS Scientists Investigate Coastal Processes Affecting a Restored Tidal Wetland in the San Francisco Presidio

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Li Erikson carrying backpack and antenna for beach-profile measurements.
Above: Li Erikson carrying backpack and antenna for beach-profile measurements. Photograph by Tom Reiss, October 26, 2007. [larger version]
Back in 1915, a 127-acre tidal marsh amidst a dune field at the north end of San Francisco was filled in to make room for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The site was part of the Presidio, established as the northernmost military outpost in western North America by the Spanish in the 1700s, later ruled by Mexico for 24 years, and eventually taken over by the U.S. military in the mid-1800s. Later this site served as a key airfield, where research and innovation helped develop the airpower that proved essential to Allied victory in World War II. The site was eventually transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) in 1994, which set out to convert large areas of the Presidio into a park stretching along the shore from the Golden Gate Bridge eastward to the San Francisco Marina. As a part of park construction, the NPS contracted with private consulting firms and successfully restored approximately 16 acres of the tidal marsh, now named Crissy Field Marsh after the airfield that formerly occupied the site. Crissy Field Marsh and the surrounding area are frequented by both locals and tourists, serve as a popular feeding ground for shorebirds, and provide valuable habitats for numerous species.

Overview of study area
Above: Overview of study area. Upper right, Crissy Field Marsh and vicinity, with the nearby Golden Gate Bridge to the west; lower left, image of study area that includes transects (yellow) for CPS and backpack GPS surveys and sediment sampling.

The ecological benefits provided by the marsh, as well as its public-education value, depend on the continuing exchange of water with San Francisco Bay through a narrow and highly dynamic inlet. Since its completion in 1999, the inlet has been closed off several times, requiring periodic maintenance to reopen it. The closures are thought to result from the marsh's limited tidal prism (the volume of water exchanged between the marsh and the bay during one complete tidal cycle) and the area's strong longshore transport (transport of sediment carried by currents moving alongshore), with a net transport from west to east. It was noted during the original design phase of wetland construction that the tidal prism of the restored marsh—considerably smaller than that of the original marsh—might be insufficient to keep the longshore transport from filling in the inlet channel.

View northward along throat of marsh inlet.
Above: View northward along throat of marsh inlet. Inlet is occasionally excavated so that it is oriented approximately north-south. A flood shoal typically appears shortly after excavation and eventually fills in, causing the inlet to be rerouted and ultimately closed off by longshore drift from the west. Photograph by Li Erikson, September 18, 2007. [larger version]

USGS scientists Patrick Barnard, Dan Hanes, and Li Erikson, in collaboration with Edwin Elias from Delft Hydraulics, have begun a scientific investigation to understand the physical processes controlling the shape and function of the inlet to Crissy Field Marsh. For several years, this group has been developing a numerical model, using the state-of-the-art software package Delft3D, to simulate the hydro-dynamic and morphodynamic processes of the San Francisco Bay region. The model domain includes the greater San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean coast from approximately Point Reyes to Pacifica, with recent interest focused on the exchange of sediment between the open coast and the central bay, including the shoreline abutting Crissy Field Marsh. The related interests of the NPS (in the longshore transport responsible for closing the inlet at Crissy Field Marsh) and the USGS (in sediment exchanges between the bay and the open coast) provided an opportunity to obtain field measurements in the vicinity of the Crissy Field Marsh, extending from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Francisco Marina. The field measurements will be used to gain further understanding of the coastal processes in the southern part of central San Francisco Bay and to calibrate and validate the numerical model. The study area features extremely powerful tidal currents that peak at more than 2.5 m/s, strong wind gusts funneled through the Golden Gate Strait that annually exceed 14 m/s in velocity, and complex wave-current interaction as Pacific swell and local seas collide with strong tidal currents.

Patrick Barnard and Jeff Hansen Kate Dallas and Patrick Barnard
Above left: Patrick Barnard and Jeff Hansen using CPSes to obtain bathymetric data. The Golden Gate Bridge is in the background. Photograph by Tom Reiss, October 26, 2007. [larger version]

Above right: Kate Dallas (standing) and Patrick Barnard use a bed-sediment camera to obtain sand-grain-size measurements beside Crissy Field Marsh inlet. Alcatraz Island is visible on the horizon. Photograph by Li Erikson, October 26, 2007. [larger version]

Baseline characterization of sediments and beach and nearshore morphology were obtained in October 2007 with a suite of measurement tools. A total of 39 cross-shore transects, spaced about every 100 m in the longshore direction, and 4 longshore transects were measured for bathymetry and topography profiles. Bathymetry was collected by USGS scientist Barnard and University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) graduate student Jeff Hansen (with field support from USGS Marine Technician Jackson Currie) with coastal-profiling systems (CPSes). The CPSes are personal watercraft equipped with Ashtech Z-Extreme real-time kinematic (RTK) receivers linked to single-beam echosounders collecting depth measurements at 5 Hz. Tom Reiss and Gerald Hatcher of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Marine Facility in Santa Cruz, California, maintained the RTK and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. The vertical- and horizontal-positioning accuracy of this system is approximately ±10 cm in the vertical plane and ±5 cm in the horizontal plane when atmospheric conditions and satellite geometries are optimum and surface waves are small.

The dryland segments of the cross-shore transects were completed with backpack RTK GPS systems carried by Li Erikson and Kate Dallas, a former USGS employee and current graduate student at UCSC.

Sediment grain sizes were recorded with a bed-sediment camera and analyzed by using an algorithm derived by team member David Rubin. (See Sound Waves article, "Patent Awarded to USGS Scientists for Underwater Microscope System" and Journal of Sedimentary Research technical abstract, "A Simple Autocorrelation Algorithm for Determining Grain Size from Digital Images of Sediment.")

Nearshore bathymetry and beach changes over the winter season, followed by recovery rates, will be ascertained with future field efforts planned for winter and summer 2008, when waves and currents along the shore will also be measured. Additional fieldwork planned for early 2008, to complement the recently obtained data, consists of obtaining and analyzing sediment samples throughout the study area and measuring currents over spring and neap tides in the vicinity of the mouth of the bay.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Patent Awarded to USGS Scientists for Underwater Microscope System
March 2004

Related Web Sites
A Simple Autocorrelation Algorithm for Determining Grain Size from Digital Images of Sediment
Journal of Sedimentary Research
Crissy Field
National Park Service
NOAA Tides and Currents
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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cover story:
Earthquake Damage Near Nuclear Power Plant

Coastal Processes Affect a Restored Tidal Wetland

Coral-Reef Investigation Featured in Molokai Times

Outreach Open House at FISC St. Petersburg

Meetings Workshop on Impacts of Sea Level Rise

International Delta Roundtable Meeting

2007 SACNAS National Conference

Ocean and Coastal Mapping Inventory Workshop

Awards Biologists Honored for Polar Bear Research

Brian Atwater Receives Award, Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Peter Barnes Receives Scientist Emeritus Best Publication Award

Ralph Cheng Receives Distinguished Service Award

Janet Thompson Receives Diversity Award

Staff Samples on the Move

Runners Team Up for Marathon

G.K. Gilbert Helps Celebrate Alumni Reunion


New Book on Tidal Freshwater Forested Wetlands

Jan. / Feb. Publications List

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