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U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5094

Connections Among the Spatial and Temporal Structures in Tidal Currents, Internal Bores, and Surficial Sediment Distributions Over the Shelf off Palos Verdes, California

By Marlene A. Noble, Kurt J. Rosenberger, Jingping Xu, Richard P. Signell, and Alex Steele



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The topography of the Continental Shelf in the central portion of the Southern California Bight has rapid variations over relatively small spatial scales. The width of the shelf off the Palos Verdes peninsula, just northwest of Los Angeles, California, is only 1 to 3 km. About 7 km southeast of the peninsula, the shelf within San Pedro Bay widens to about 20 km. In 2000, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District began deploying a dense array of moorings in this complex region of the central Southern California Bight to monitor local circulation patterns. Moorings were deployed at 13 sites on the Palos Verdes shelf and within the northwestern portion of San Pedro Bay. At each site, a mooring supported a string of thermistors and an adjacent bottom platform housed an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler. These instruments collected vertical profiles of current and temperature data continuously for one to two years.

The variable bathymetry in the region causes rapid changes in the amplitudes and spatial structures of barotropic tidal currents, internal tidal currents, and in the associated nonlinear baroclinic currents that occur at approximate tidal frequencies. The largest barotropic tidal constituent is M2, the principal semidiurnal tide. The amplitude of this tidal current changes over fairly short along-shelf length scales. Tidal-current amplitudes are largest in the transition region between the two shelves; they increase from about 5 cm/s over the northern San Pedro shelf to nearly 10 cm/s on the southern portion of the Palos Verdes Shelf. Tidal-current amplitudes are then reduced to less than 2 cm/s over the very narrow section of the northern Palos Verdes shelf that lies just 6 km upcoast of the southern sites. Models suggest that the amplitude of the barotropic M2 tidal currents, which propagate toward the northwest primarily as a Kelvin wave, is adjusting to the short topographic length scales in the region. Semidiurnal sea-level oscillations are, as expected, independent of these topographic variations; they have a uniform amplitude and phase structure over the entire region.

Because the cross-shelf angle of the seabed over most of the Palos Verdes shelf is 1 to 3 degrees, which is critical for the local generation and/or enhancement of nonlinear characteristics in semidiurnal internal tides, some internal tidal-current events have strong asymmetric current oscillations that are enhanced near the seabed. Near-bottom currents in these events are directed primarily offshore with amplitudes that exceed 30 cm/s. The spatial patterns in these energetic near-bottom currents have fairly short-length scales. They are largest over the inner shelf and in the transition region between the Palos Verdes and San Pedro shelves. This spatial pattern is similar to that found in the barotropic tidal currents. Because these baroclinic currents have an approximate tidal frequency, an asymmetric vertical structure, and a somewhat stable phase, they can produce a non-zero depth-mean flow for periods of a few months. These baroclinic currents can interact with the barotropic tidal current and cause an apparent increase (or decrease) in the estimated barotropic tidal-current amplitude. The apparent amplitude of the barotropic tidal current may change by 30 to 80 percent or more in a current record that is less than three months long.

The currents and surficial sediments in this region are in dynamic equilibrium in that the spatial patterns in bottom stresses generated by near-bed currents from surface tides, internal tides, and internal bores partly control the spatial patterns in the local sediments. Coarser sediments are found in the regions with enhanced bottom stresses (that is, over the inner shelf and in the region between the Palos Verdes and San Pedro shelves). Finer sediments are found over the northwestern portion of the Palos Verdes shelf, where near-bottom currents are relatively weak. The nonlinear asymmetries in the internal tidal-period current oscillations cause a net transport of suspended material along and off the shelf, reinforcing the mean flow patterns that also carry sediment either into Santa Monica Bay or offshore and onto the adjacent slope.

Version 1.0

First posted May 13, 2009
Last modified May 28, 2009

This report is available only on the Web

For additional information contact:
Marlene Noble

Western Coastal and Marine Geology

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Suggested citation:

Noble, Marlene A., Rosenberger, Kurt J., Xu, Jingping, Signell, Richard P., and Steele, Alex, 2009, Connections among the spatial and temporal structures in tidal currents, internal bores, and surficial sediment distributions over the shelf off Palos Verdes, California: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5094, 33 p. [].




Topographic Setting

Instrumental Arrays and Initial Data-Processing Procedures

Current Patterns on the Palos Verdes Shelf





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