Numerical modeling of circulation in high-energy estuaries: A Columbia River estuary benchmark

Tuomas Kärnä, António M. Baptista, Jesse E. Lopez, Paul J. Turner, Craig McNeil, Thomas B. Sanford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Numerical modeling of three-dimensional estuarine circulation is often challenging due to complex flow features and strong density gradients. In this paper the skill of a specific model is assessed against a high-resolution data set, obtained in a river-dominated mesotidal estuary with autonomous underwater vehicles and a shipborne winched profiler. The measurements provide a detailed view of the salt wedge dynamics of the Columbia River estuary. Model skill is examined under contrasting forcing conditions, covering spring freshet and autumn low flow conditions, as well as spring and neap tides. The data set provides a rigorous benchmark for numerical circulation models. This benchmark is used herein to evaluate an unstructured grid circulation model, based on linear finite element and finite volume formulations. Advection of momentum is treated with an Eulerian-Lagrangian scheme. After the model's sensitivity to grid resolution and time step is examined, a detailed skill assessment is provided for the best model configuration. The simulations reproduce the timing and tidal asymmetry of salinity intrusion. Sharp density gradients, however, tend to be smoothed out affecting vertical mixing and gravitational circulation. We show that gravitational salt transport is underestimated in the model, but is partially compensated through tidal effects. The discrepancy becomes most pronounced when the stratification is strongest, i.e., under high river discharge and neap tide conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-71
Number of pages18
JournalOcean Modelling
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Autonomous underwater vehicle
  • Estuarine circulation
  • Mixing processes
  • Model validation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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