Skip to main content
Geosciences LibreTexts

14.1.6: Estuaries

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Estuaries are partially enclosed bodies of water where the salt water is diluted by fresh water input from land, creating brackish water with a salinity somewhere between fresh water and normal seawater. Estuaries include many bays, inlets, and sounds, and are often subject to large temperature and salinity variations due to their enclosed nature and smaller size compared to the open ocean.

    Estuaries can be classified geologically into four basic categories based on their method of origin. In all cases they are a result of rising sea level over the last 18,000 years, beginning with the end of the last ice age; a period that has seen a rise of about 130 m. The rise in sea level has flooded coastal areas that were previously above water, and prevented the estuaries from being filled in by all of the sediments that have been emptied into them.

    The first type is a coastal plain estuary, or drowned river valley. These estuaries are formed as sea level rises and floods an existing river valley, mixing salt and fresh water to create the brackish conditions where the river meets the sea. These types of estuaries are common along the east coast of the United States, including major bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and Narragansett Bay (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Coastal plain estuaries are usually shallow, and since there is a lot of sediment input from the rivers, there are often a number of depositional features associated with them such as spits and barrier islands.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) A coastal plain estuary. Sea level has risen and flooded what was once a river valley. The satellite image shows Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, two coastal plain estuaries (left: JR, right: NASA, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

    The presence of sand bars, spits, and barrier islands can lead to bar-built estuaries, where a barrier is created between the mainland and the ocean. The water that remains inside the sand bar is cut off from complete mixing with the ocean, and receives freshwater input from the mainland, creating estuarine conditions (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) A bar-built estuary. Sand bars and barrier islands have partially isolated a lagoon from the rest of the ocean. Freshwater input into the lagoon from the mainland creates brackish conditions in the estuary. At right is a satellite image of Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, a bar-built estuary surrounded by spits and barrier islands (left: JR, right: NASA, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

    Fjords are estuaries formed in deep, U-shaped basins that were carved out by advancing glaciers. When the glaciers melted and retreated, sea level rose and filled these troughs, creating deep, steep-walled fjords (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Fjords are common in Norway, Alaska, Canada, and New Zealand, where there are mountainous coastlines once covered by glaciers.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) A fjord is a deep estuary that was carved out by glacial movements. At right is Geirangerfjord, Norway (left: JR, right: Fgmedia, [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

    Tectonic estuaries are the result of tectonic movements, where faulting causes some sections of the crust to subside, and those lower elevation sections then get flooded with seawater. San Francisco Bay is an example of a tectonic estuary (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) A tectonic estuary, formed from the subsidence of crust along fault lines, and the subsequent filling by seawater. San Francisco Bay is a tectonic estuary, shown at right (left: JR, right: USGS, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

    Estuaries are also classified based on their salinity and mixing patterns. The amount of mixing of fresh and salt water in an estuary depends on the rate at which fresh water enters the head of the estuary from river input, and the amount of seawater that enters the estuary mouth as a result of tidal movements. The input of fresh water is reflected in the flushing time of the estuary. This refers to the time it would take for the in-flowing fresh water to completely replace all the fresh water currently in the estuary. Seawater input is measured by the tidal volume, or tidalprism, which is the average volume of sea water entering and leaving the estuary during each tidal cycle. In other words, it is the volume difference between high and low tides. The interaction between the flushing time, tidal volume, and the shape of the estuary will determine the extent and type of water mixing within the estuary.

    In a vertically mixed, or well-mixed estuary there is complete mixing of fresh and salt water from the surface to the bottom. In a particular location the salinity is constant at all depths, but across the estuary the salinity is lowest at the head where the fresh water enters, and is highest at the mouth, where the seawater comes in. This type of salinity profile usually occurs in shallower estuaries, where the shallow depths allow  complete mixing from the surface to the bottom.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) A well-mixed estuary. The shallow basin allows nearly complete mixing or fresh and seawater from top to bottom. Salinities are in ppt (JR).

    Slightly stratified or partially mixed estuaries have similar salinity profiles to vertically mixed estuaries, where salinity increases from the head to the mouth, but there is also a slight increase in salinity with depth at any point. This usually occurs in deeper estuaries than those that are well-mixed, where waves and currents mix the surface water, but the mixing may not extend all the way to the bottom.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\) A slightly-stratified estuary. Generally deeper than a well-mixed estuary, the inflow of seawater (dark blue arrow) and fresh water (light blue arrow) create an estuary where salinity increases with depth, and at the surface when moving from the head to the mouth of the estuary. Salinities are in ppt (JR).

    A salt wedge estuary occurs where the outflow of fresh water is strong enough to prevent the denser ocean water to enter through the surface, and where the estuary is deep enough that surface waves and turbulence have little mixing effect on the deeper water. Fresh water flows out along surface, salt water flows in at depth, creating a wedge shaped lens of seawater moving along the bottom. The surface water may remain mostly fresh throughout the estuary if there is no mixing, or it can become brackish depending on the level of mixing that occurs.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\) A salt wedge estuary. Strong river outflow (light blue arrows) creates a layer of mostly fresh water that sits on top of a wedge of encroaching seawater along the bottom (dark blue arrow). Salinities are in ppt (JR).

    Highly stratified profiles are found in very deep estuaries, such as in fjords. Because of the depth, mixing of fresh and salt water only occurs near the surface, so in the upper layers salinity increases from the head to the mouth, but the deeper water is of standard ocean salinity.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\) A highly stratified estuary. Strong river outflow and a deep basin prevent mixing between surface and bottom water, creating an estuary that is vertically stratified. Salinities are represented in ppt (JR).

    Estuaries are very important commercially, as they are home to the majority of the world’s metropolitan areas, they serve as ports for industrial activity, and a large percentage of the world’s population lives near estuaries. Estuaries are also very important biologically, especially in their role as the breeding grounds for many species of fish, birds, and invertebrates.

    14.1.6: Estuaries is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paul Webb via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.