Sediment characteristics largely govern tidal flat morphologic evolution; however, conventional methods of investigating spatial variability in lithology on tidal flats are difficult to employ in these highly dynamic regions. In response, a series of laboratory experiments was designed to investigate the use of temperature diffusion toward sediment characterization. A vertical thermistor array was used to quantify temperature gradients in simulated tidal flat sediments of varying compositions. Thermal conductivity estimates derived from these arrays were similar to measurements from a standard heated needle probe, which substantiates the thermistor methodology. While the thermal diffusivities of dry homogeneous sediments were similar, diffusivities for saturated homogeneous sediments ranged approximately one order of magnitude. The thermal diffusivity of saturated sand was five times the thermal diffusivity of saturated kaolin and more than eight times the thermal diffusivity of saturated bentonite. This suggests that vertical temperature gradients can be used for distinguishing homogeneous saturated sands from homogeneous saturated clays and perhaps even between homogeneous saturated clay types. However, experiments with more realistic tidal flat mixtures were less discriminating. Relationships between thermal diffusivity and percent fines for saturated mixtures varied depending upon clay composition, indicating that clay hydration and/or water content controls thermal gradients. Furthermore, existing models for the bulk conductivity of sediment mixtures were improved only through the use of calibrated estimates of homogeneous end-member conductivity and water content values. Our findings suggest that remotely sensed observations of water content and thermal diffusivity could only be used to qualitatively estimate tidal flat sediment characteristics.
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Use of vertical temperature gradients for prediction of tidal flat sediment characteristics