The dependence of estuarine turbidity on tidal intrusion length, tidal range and residence time

Continental Shelf Research
By: , and 



It is shown that there is a marked tendency for long, strongly tidal estuaries to have greater suspended particulate matter (SPM) concentrations within their high-turbidity regions than shorter estuaries with comparable tidal ranges at their mouths, or weakly tidal estuaries. Using consistently derived data from 44 estuaries in Europe and the Americas, contours of the logarithm of maximum estuarine SPM concentration are shown to be reasonably smooth when plotted against the logarithm of mean spring tidal range (at the estuary mouth) and the logarithm of estuarine tidal length. Predictions from the plot are compared with published observations made in the Delaware, Scheldt, Rio de la Plata, Gironde, Bay of Fundy, Changjiang (Yangtze), Amazon, Patos Lagoon and the Hawkesbury Estuary and it is shown that, qualitatively, there are no serious discrepancies. Short, weakly tidal estuaries are predicted to have very low ‘intrinsic’ SPM concentrations. High SPM concentrations in these estuaries would most likely be the result of either locally generated wave resuspension, high freshwater sediment loads due to freshets, or intruding seawater carrying suspended sediments derived from wave activity in the coastal zone. Application of a generic tidal model demonstrates that longer estuaries possess faster tidal currents for a given tidal range at their mouth and, in the presence of a supply of erodable fine sediment, therefore (by implication) produce greater concentrations of SPM that can be accumulated within a turbidity maximum. The same is true if the tidal range is increased for estuaries of a given length. These features are illustrated by comparing surveys of SPM data from two large estuaries possessing greatly different tidal ranges (the microtidal, medium turbidity Potomac and the macrotidal, highly turbid Humber-Ouse) and a third, much smaller but strongly tidal estuary (the low-turbidity Tweed). It is demonstrated that longer estuaries tend to have longer flushing times for solutes than shorter systems and that larger tides tend to reduce flushing times, although the tidal influence is secondary. Short, rapidly flushed estuaries quickly lose their erodable fine sediment to the coastal zone during freshets and during the ebbing currents of spring tides. Turbidity is therefore small during low runoff, low wave activity conditions. Very long, very slowly flushed estuaries are unlikely to lose a significant fraction of their resuspended sediments during freshets or individual ebb tides and are therefore able to accumulate large and increasing amounts of fine sediment in the long-term. Turbidity within them is therefore high during the fast currents of large spring tides.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The dependence of estuarine turbidity on tidal intrusion length, tidal range and residence time
Series title Continental Shelf Research
DOI 10.1016/S0278-4343(02)00041-9
Volume 22
Issue 11-13
Year Published 2002
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 22 p.
First page 1835
Last page 1856