Oceanography of the U.S. Pacific Northwest coastal ocean and estuaries with application to coastal ecology

Barbara M. Hickey, Neil S. Banas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

306 Citations (Scopus)


Ocean processes are generally large scale on the U.S. Pacific Northwest coast; this is true of both seasonal variations and event-scale upwelling-downwelling fluctuations., which are highly energetic. Coastal upwelling supplies most of the macronutrients available for production, although the intensity of upwelling-favorable wind forcing increases southward while primary production and chlorophyll are higher in the north, off the Washington coast. This discrepancy could be related to several mesoscale features: the wider, more gently sloping shelf to the north, the existence of numerous submarine canyons to the north, the availability of Columbia River plume water and sediment north of the river mouth, and the existence of a semi-permanent eddy offshore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We suggest that these features have important effects on the magnitude and timing of macronutrient or micronutrient delivery to the plankton. These features are potentially important as well to transport pathways and residence times of planktonic larvae and to the development of harmful algal blooms. The coastal plain estuaries, with the exception of the Columbia River, are relatively small, with large tidal forcing and highly seasonal direct river inputs that are low to negligible during the growing season. Primary production in these estuaries is likely controlled not by river-driven stratification but by coastal upwelling and exchange with the ocean. Both baroclinic mechanisms (the gravitational circulation) and barotropic ones (lateral stirring by tide and, possibly, wind) contribute to this exchange. Because estuarine hydrography and ecology are so dominated by ocean signals, the coastal estuaries, like the coastal ocean, are largely synchronous on seasonal and event time scales, though, intrusions of the Columbia River plume can cause strong asymmetries between Washington and Oregon estuaries especially during spring downwelling conditions. Water property correlation increases between spring and summer as wind forcing becomes more spatially coherent along the coast. Estuarine habitat is structure not only, by large scale forcing but also by fine scale processes in the extensive intertidal zone, such as by solar heating or differential advection by tidal, curents.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1010-1031
Number of pages22
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2003


  • coastal ecology
  • marine ecology
  • nature conservation
  • environmental management


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