Two key characteristics that are unique to tides: 1) flow changes direction 1 or 2 times per day; and 2) The speed of flow is cyclical with flow going onshore, stopping at hight tide, then flowing offshore, and stopping at low tide. There is lots of variability in tides depending on geography. Flow speeds vary, producing different sedimentary structures. In the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides recorded in the world (up to 16 m - a 5 story building), the water moves up to 15 km/hr (417 cm/sec) which is fast enough to transport boulders. At the low end, tidal currents are essentially non-existent. Also, there are times of slack tides when the water is essentially still or wave-dominated. Thus, the range of sedimentary structures is wide, including dunes (often called tidal bars when very large) and ripples. The main characteristic to look for, though, is variations in flow speed and DIRECTION.
Tidal Sedimentary Structures
Due to changing flow directions, two sediment transport directions are common, one for onshore flow and one for offshore flow. Often the onshore and offshore flows are not in the same location, but they shift around. This gives rise to current ripples showing transport in two directions and dune migration in two directions producing herringbone cross stratification. See figures 11.6 and 11.7 in Nichols. If the dunes are small and sedimentation rates are very high, you can get herringbone cross stratification in one tidal cycle in a modern environment. It is usually not preserved in the geological record because it is eroded prior to lithification. It is almost always the longer term changes in current locations that gives rise to preserved herringbone cross stratification. Dunes migrate in one direction for a while, and then currents patterns change and they migrate in the other direction. Herringbone cross stratification is almost always due to tidal processes, although it is not all that common in the sedimentary record. Commonly, one tidal current is much stronger than the others or the flow locations aren’t systematically shifting, so tabular cross stratification is more common. It is not unique to tidal environments, however.
Reactivation Surfaces - Reactivation surfaces form when flow in one direction is stronger than the other, but the other flow is strong enough to modify the bedform shape. See figures 11.6 and 11.9 in Nichols. Reactivation surfaces are erosion surfaces within the sets of cross stratification. They look like irregular surfaces that are similarly oriented to the foresets, but usually do not dip quite as steeply. Also, the foresets above and below the reactivation surface commonly have a slightly different orientation. Reactivation surfaces indicate varying flow directions, which is very common in tidal environments.
Mud Drapes - Flow speeds are also cyclical. During slack tides (low or especially high), fine grained sediment can fall out of suspension draping tidal bedforms with mud. Because mud is cohesive, it does not necessarily erode during the next tidal flow, particularly in the separation zone where flow is slow, e.g. at the bases of ripples and dunes. Thus, sand foresets coated with mud are very common in tidal environments as well. See figures 11.6 and 11.8 in Nichols.
KEY POINT FOR TIDAL PROCESSES: Bi-directional flow with varying speeds over hours