Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Applied Marine Physics (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Ad Reniers

Second Committee Member

Brian Haus

Third Committee Member

Jacobus van de Kreeke

Fourth Committee Member

Villy Kourafalou

Fifth Committee Member

Tamay M. Özgökmen

Sixth Committee Member

Jamie MacMahan


The exchange of water in a coastal embayment with seawater is forced by tidally driven and gravitational flows. Tidal flows oscillate temporally based on planetary motion, while gravitational flows like those found in rivers act in one direction from high to low altitude. These flows determine the residence time, or the time water will remain within an embayment. At the ocean boundary, many coasts contain barrier islands with inlets through which these flows propagate. The effect that inlets have on the exchange of inland water with the sea has been the subject of research for nearly a century. Residence time is a bulk parameter that can be used to indicate the efficiency of an inlet system to rid itself of contaminants and maintain good water quality. Because coastal embayments are often exposed to anthropogenic pollutants, understanding the processes that control residence time improves our ability to protect coastal ecosystems. Inlet systems, including lagoons and estuaries, are subject to processes of a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. As such, past efforts to identify which processes control the motion and transport of water often rely on assumptions that simplify the kinematics. Today, the rapid evolution of personal computing has enabled the creation of numerical models that resolve the Reynolds Averaged Navier Stokes Equations (RANS) for complex flows found in inlet environments. This dissertation focuses on utilizing such a model to examine the flow in tidal inlet systems and to identify the dominant processes that control exchange and residence time. First, modeling experiments of idealized lagoons are conducted with the aim of quantifying how the shape of an inlet affects residence time. Seventeen different inlet configurations are examined. Methods of quantifying residence time based on previous analytical models are applied to a numerical model for the first time. To better understand the mechanism of exchange, a simple transport model is also developed. In the transport model, a new definition of tidally driven exchange is presented and used to quantify how tidal exchange controls residence time in a lagoon. Residence time is found to be minimized for inlets that are restricted enough to produce energetic tidal flows, but broad enough to prevent a reduction in the tidal prism. To apply the methods derived from the idealized modeling to a real inlet system, a depth-averaged coupled Wave-Flow model of New River Inlet (NRI) in North Carolina is developed. NRI features a relatively narrow inlet that connects to an expansive estuary. The model is calibrated and verified with a collection of field observations obtained during the first ONR funded Inlet and River Mouth Dynamics Departmental Research Initiative (RIVET 1) field experiment. In situ flow, water level, wave and dye concentration observations are used to quantify model performance through a skill analysis. The methods developed to quantify residence time and tidal exchange in the idealized lagoon models are applied to the NRI model. The model is used to quantify residence time with parameters from each tidal cycle from May 1-20, 2012 to examine temporal variability. Through the modeling it is shown that residence time in an estuary is controlled primarily by the geometry of the system, and by the processes of tidal exchange and river flushing. Tidal exchange is further controlled by an assortment of factors including the geometry of the inlet, the magnitude of the tide, and any physical processes that draw water away from the inlet on both the ocean and estuary sides. The temporal variability of tidal exchange is attributed primarily to subtidal fluctuations of the tidal prism and secondarily to nearshore processes driven by wind and waves that produce longshore currents. The river flow at NRI, although weak, is shown to reduce the mean residence time by 14.6%. Future work is needed to develop an analytical expression for the mean residence time in an estuary that includes both the influences of tidal exchange and river flushing.


Tidal Inlet; Residence Time; Inlet; Tidal Exchange; Estuary; Lagoon