Subsurface Flow and Moisture Dynamics in Response to Swash Motions: Effects of Beach Hydraulic Conductivity and Capillarity

Xiaolong Geng, James W. Heiss, Holly A. Michael, Michel C. Boufadel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


A combined field and numerical study was conducted to investigate dynamics of subsurface flow and moisture response to waves in the swash zone of a sandy beach located on Cape Henlopen, DE. A density-dependent variably saturated flow model MARUN was used to simulate subsurface flow beneath the swash zone. Values of hydraulic conductivity (K) and characteristic pore size (α, a capillary fringe property) were varied to evaluate their effects on subsurface flow and moisture dynamics in response to swash motions in beach aquifers. The site-specific modeling results were validated against spatiotemporal measurements of moisture and pore pressure in the beach. Sensitivity analyses indicated that the hydraulic conductivity and capillary fringe thickness of the beach greatly influenced groundwater flow pathways and associated transit times in the swash zone. A higher value of K enhanced swash-induced seawater infiltration into the beach, thereby resulting in a faster expansion of a wedge of high moisture content induced by swash cycles, and a flatter water table mound beneath the swash zone. In contrast, a thicker capillary fringe retained higher moisture content near the beach surface, and thus, significantly reduced the available pore space for infiltration of seawater. This attenuated wave effects on pore water flow in the unsaturated zone of the beach. Also, a thicker capillary fringe enhanced horizontal flow driven by the larger-scale hydraulic gradient caused by tides.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10317-10335
Number of pages19
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • beach aquifers
  • capillarity
  • instantaneous waves
  • numerical modeling
  • pore water flow
  • swash zone


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