Radionuclide tracers of sediment-water interactions on the Amazon shelf.

SelectedWorks Author Profiles:

Joseph M. Smoak

Document Type


Publication Date


Date Issued

January 1996

Date Available

January 2012


A comprehensive study of a variety of radionuclide tracers has been coupled with other geochemical investigations and with sedimentary and physical oceanographic measurements to elucidate processes and their characteristic time scales at the mouth of the Amazon River. This two-year field study on the Amazon continental shelf involved four cruises designed to provide information during different stages of the river hydrograph. Although the cruises were coordinated with river stage, other physical variables including spring-neap tidal stages, the flow of the North Brazil Current and trade-wind stress caused important effects on the shelf environment. Partitioning of uranium among dissolved, colloidal and particulate phases was investigated during AmasSeds. A detailed examination of uranium water-column behavior during low river discharge found that most (89%) of the uranium near the Amazon River mouth was associated with the particulate phase and that most (92%) of the riverine dissolved-phase uranium was in the colloidal size fraction (0.001-0.4 m). A non-conservative uranium/salinity distribution was observed for dissolved uranium, indicating large-scale uranium removal from surface waters with salinities less than 20 ppt. Colloidal uranium was non-conservative across the entire salinity regime, exhibiting removal of colloidal uranium from waters with salinities less than 12 ppt and a significant input at higher salinities. A short-lived particle-reactive tracer, 234Th, was used to evaluate the rates of particle scavenging on the shelf. Suspended-sediment concentrations respond to each turn of the tide, thus limiting the time available for equilibrium to be established between the particles and the tracers. Experiments demonstrated that on the Amazon shelf the partitioning and distribution of trace elements are governed by particle dynamics (particle residence times < sorption times). The high suspended load, including fluid muds, retards the incorporation of adsorbed 234Th into the seabed. Once scavenged, 234Th remains part of the suspended-sediment and fluid-mud inventory for periods of at least 4-8 weeks. Another particle-reactive tracer, 210Pb, was used to evaluate the potential supply of reactive metals from offshore waters to the shelf. As open-ocean waters move into the Amazon mixing zone, in response to the estuarine-like circulation, they lose 210Pb through scavenging processes associated with delta formation. This oceanic input of 210Pb dominates other inputs to the Amazon shelf system. Based on 210Pb analyses from more than 40 box and kasten cores, the flux of water moving shoreward and depositing 210Pb in the sediments was calculated to be on the order of 6 x 1016 1y-1 ~10 times the riverine flux from the Amazon. The distribution of 210Pb in the sediments suggests that if particle-reactive species (such as certain trace metals) are released in dissolved form on the shelf, they will be scavenged quickly in this turbid environment, with the largest inventories occurring in the foreset beds (although the highest concentrations occur in the bottomset beds). The large landward flow of water indicates that if particle-reactive species arc released in the western equatorial Atlantic via aerosol transport or other mechanisms, there is a good chance that a sizeable portion will be buried in the Amazon delta. Fluxes of radium isotopes, 226Ra. 228Ra and 224Ra. from the bottom sediments were used to evaluate sediment resuspension across the shelf. The average flux of 226Ra from the Amazon shelf balanced the annual desorption of 226Ra from river-derived sediments; however, departures between the 226Ra flux and sediment necessary to support the flux occurred for different sampling periods. During falling and low discharge, less sediment entered the system than was required to support the sedimentary desorption 226Ra flux. During rising and high discharge, more sediment entered than was necessary to sustain the 226Ra flux. Considerable recycling of particles between the seabed and water column was required to wash away most of the desorbable 226Ra from the sediment. To support the sedimentary 228Ra flux, 3.4 x 1016 g of sediment must be resuspended each year. Such mixing would resuspend the top 35 cm of sediment over the entire shelf each year, or mix the surface layer (SL, the region of uniform sedimentary 210Pb depth profiles} to a depth of 90 cm annually. Such mixing would turn over the entire SL every 1-2 years. Desorption of sedimentary radium isotopes must be accompanied by the desorption of other exchangeable species including phosphate, cesium and cadmium. Correlations among phosphate and radium isotopes, infer that phosphate is being released from bottom sediments as the sediments arc resuspended into the water column. As was the case for 226Ra, bottom sediment must be repeatedly suspended into the water column to release all of the exchangeable phosphate. The desorption of 224Ra from shelf sediments provides a tracer of the Amazon plume into the Atlantic. In July and September 1989, the ship crossed the Demerara retroflection 380 km from the Amazon shelf and excess 224Ra activities up to 8 dpm 100 kg- 1 were measured. It was concluded that these waters were <5 days removed from the Amazon shelf. A sustained current of >80 cm s-1 would be required to advect the water this distance in <5 days, an observation that agrees well with drogue releases during August 1989.


Abstract only. Full-text article is available only through licensed access provided by the publisher. Published in Continental Shelf Research, 16(5/6), 645-665. Members of the USF System may access the full-text of the article through the authenticated link provided.




Elsevier Science

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.