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Chapter 3 Estuary setting

Chapter summary

There are many types of estuary determined by their geological setting and dominance of particular processes. This chapter:

  • Outlines estuary classification and setting according to topographical and geomorphological classification (Figure 3.1); 
  • Reviews the ways in which estuaries have been classified in the past;
  • Describes estuarine processes, which contribute to the changing geomorphology of an estuary, and assist in the definition of estuary classification;
  • Discusses estuarine geomorphological characteristics;
  • Summarises estuarine characteristic parameters including estuary length, tidal prism, cross sectional areas and sedimentology;
  • Discusses the form and function of an estuary according to controls and constraints of estuary characteristics and process.
Figure 3.1 Flow diagram of estuarine setting
Estuary setting - click boxes to go to relevant section


There are many things that contribute to the form and functioning of an estuary, for example, the size and length of the river catchment, the amount of river flow, the tidal range and geological setting of the estuary (often referred to as the antecedent conditions i.e. what went before). The recent geological record aids the understanding of the behaviour of estuaries. In particular, the period known as the Holocene (approximately the last 10,000 years, going back to the last ice age) is important because this determines the recent history of infilling by sediments. This has occurred as sediments are washed down the rivers, or carried in from the sea by the tide, and dropped in the more tranquil conditions of the estuary. The pre-Holocene geology is usually much harder and defines the basin in which the estuary sits. It may also provide local hard points, such as the “narrows” to be found at the mouth of the River Mersey in England.

Examining the amount of infilling that has taken place over the Holocene allows different types of estuary to be identified. Firstly, there are the deep fjords and fjards found in Scotland, Norway and New Zealand, where any infilling is insignificant and the shape and size of the estuary is entirely dependent on the shape carved out by earlier ice ages.   Then there are a group of estuaries known as rias, which are also rock forms, usually carved by rivers or ice melt waters, and now partially infilled. Examples are to be found on the south coasts of Ireland and England and again in New Zealand. There are also three groups that are almost entirely formed within Holocene sediments. All are a result of marine transgression, the first being drowned river valleys, which are referred to as spit enclosed or funnel-shaped estuaries. The second are the embayments, which are river or marine in origin (i.e. not glacial) and where one or more rivers meet at the mouth; and the third are drowned coastal plains where tidal inlets have formed. All three are to be found on the numerous sedimentary coasts around the world.

Figure 3.2 Estuary infilling and sediment balance

Estuary setting flow diagram This progression provides some clues as to how an estuary develops. Clearly there is a progressive infilling taking place that depends on the size of the initial basin and the amount of sediment available (Figure 3.2); either from erosion in the catchment, or supplied from the marine environment. Beyond a certain point, however, a sort of balance is reached and the estuary begins to release sediment, rather than retain it. This is all to do with a bias in the tide. When there is not much sediment present the greater depth at high water means that the tidal wave travels faster at high water than at low water.   This helps to bring sediment in from the sea (Dronkers, 1986). However once the mudflats build up so that, even at high tide, water depths are quite shallow, this has the effect of slowing the tidal wave at high water. Clearly, this distortion will have the opposite effect and tend to export sediment from the estuary.   As changes take place in the tides, the level of the sea, the flows draining from the rivers and the supply of sediment, so the balance will continuously adjust (Pethick, 1994).

The same progression allows the different types of estuary to be classified and with an appreciation of the dominant processes, a more detailed characterisation of a particular estuary can be undertaken, as explained in the following sections.

Estuary classification

There are many ways in which estuaries have been defined, but by their very nature as places of transition between land and sea, no simple definition readily fits all types of estuarine system. Perhaps the most widely used is that proposed by Pritchard: “An estuary is a semi-enclosed coastal body of water which has a free connection with the open sea and within which sea water is measurably diluted with fresh water derived from land drainage” (Pritchard, 1967). Pritchard went on to propose a classification from a geomorphological standpoint with four subdivisions: (1) drowned river valleys, (2) fjord type estuaries, (3) bar-built estuaries and (4) estuaries produced by tectonic processes.

A very similar classification was used for the Estuaries Review undertaken in the UK (Davidson et al., 1991). On the basis of geomorphology and topography, estuaries were divided into nine categories: (i) fjord, (ii) fjard, (iii) ria, (iv) coastal plain, (v) bar built, (vi) complex, (vii) barrier beach, (viii) linear shore and (ix) embayment.  

Hume and Herdendorf (1988) undertook a review of these and several other classification schemes before developing a scheme to cover the range of estuary types to be found in New Zealand. 

In this scheme estuaries are grouped into five classes according to the primary process that shaped the underlying basin, prior to the influence of Holocene sediment deposits Table 3.1. Within each of these five classes, there is further subdivision based on the geomorphology and oceanographic characteristics of the estuary; tides and catchment hydrology being the two most important.

Table 3.1 Estuary classification proposed by Hume & Herdendorf (1988)
Type Primary mode of origin Estuary type
1 Fluvial erosion Funnel shaped
2 Headland enclosed
3 Barrier enclosed Double spit
4 Single spit
5 Tombola
6 Island
7 Beach
8 River mouth Straight bank
9 Spit-lagoon
10 Spit-lagoon
11 Deltaic
12 Marine/fluvial Coastal embayment
13 Tectonism Fault defined embayment
14 Volcanism Diastrophic [1] embayment
15 Volcanic embayment
16 Glaciation Glacial embayment

There is some evidence that these various types can be grouped to reflect the degree to which the antecedent conditions have been altered as a result of Holocene sedimentary processes (Townend et al., 2000). The resultant groupings are as follows (Table 3.2): 

Table 3.2 Influence of Holocene sedimentary processes on estuary types
Group Description Types
A Limited or no sedimentary influence 12, 14, 16
B Relatively “young” systems in terms of Holocene evolution 1, 13, 15
B/C Fall between Groups B and C possibly because of headland control 2
C Fully developed Holocene environments 3-11

A more recent classification of UK estuaries (Defra, 2002) has developed the first three geomorphological types identified by Pritchard (1967) by including behavioural type to suggest the following seven subdivisions (note: this excludes tectonic/volcanic origins which are found elsewhere in the world) (Table 3.3):

Table 3.3 Defra (2002) estuary classification
Type Origin Behavioural type
1 Glacial valley Fjord
2 Fjard
3 Drowned river valley Ria
4 Spit enclosed
5 Funnel shaped
6 Marine/fluvial Embayment
7 Drowned coastal plain Tidal inlet

This classification has been further developed by the EstSim Project (FD 2117, EstSim Consortium, 2007) to identify specific geomorphological elements of UK estuaries in the form of an estuary typology (Table 3.4). This estuary typology has been applied to UK estuary data and developed into a rule base, presented in Table 3.5. The resulting classification for UK estuaries can be found in the Estuaries database and in much more detail at the EstSim website. Each of the estuary types has been mapped in terms of their key morphological components, termed their geomorphic elements (described below), in Systems diagrams for UK estuaries.

Table 3.4 Estuary typology (modified from Futurecoast; Defra, 2002)
Type Origin Behavioural type Spits1 Barrier beach Dune Delta Linear banks2
1 Glacial valley Fjord X        
2 Fjard 0/1/2        
3 Drowned river valley Ria 0/1/2        
4 Spit-enclosed 1/2   X E/F  
5 Funnel-shaped X   X E/F  
6 Marine/fluvial Embayment     X    
7 Drowned coastal plain Tidal inlet 1/2 X X E/F  
Type Origin Behavioural type Channels3 Rock platform Sand flats Mud flats
1 Glacial valley Fjord X X X  
2 Fjard X X X X
3 Drowned river valley Ria X X   X
4 Spit-enclosed X/N   X X
5 Funnel-shaped X   X X
6 Marine/fluvial Embayment X   X X
7 Drowned coastal plain Tidal inlet X   X X
Type Origin Behavioural type Salt marsh Cliff Flood plain4 Drainage basin
1 Glacial valley Fjord   X   X
2 Fjard X   X X
3 Drowned river valley Ria X X   X
4 Spit-enclosed X X X X
5 Funnel-shaped X   X X
6 Marine/fluvial Embayment X   X  
7 Drowned coastal plain Tidal inlet X   X  

1 Spits: 0/1/2 refers to number of spits; E/F refers to ebb/flood deltas; N refers to no low water channel; X indicates a significant presence.
2 Linear Banks: considered as alternative form of delta.
3 Channels: refers to presence of ebb/flood channels associated with deltas or an estuary subtidal channel.
4 Flood Plain: refers to presence of accommodation space on estuary hinterland.

Table 3.5 EstSim rules to identify estuary type using the UK Estuaries Database
Type Behavioural type Rule
1 Fjord Glacial origin, exposed rock platform set within steep-sided relief and with no significant mud or sand flats
2 Fjard Glacial origin, low lying relief, with significant area of sand or mud flats
3 Ria Drowned river valley in origin, with exposed rock platform and no linear banks
4 Spit-enclosed Drowned river valley in origin, with one or more spits and not an embayment
5 Funnel-shaped Drowned river valley in origin, with linear banks or no ebb/flood delta and not an embayment
6 Embayment River or marine in origin (i.e. not glacial), with multiple tidal rivers meeting at or near mouth and a bay width/length ratio1 of 1 or greater, and no exposed rock platform
7 Tidal inlet Drowned coastal plain in origin, with barrier beaches or spits
1 Where bay extends from sea opening to the confluence of the rivers

Such classifications provide a broad description of the type of estuary and are particularly relevant when considering the likely functioning of an estuary using regime concepts (see section on Study methods). However, estuaries also contain a number of other distinct features, which distinguish them from marine and terrestrial habitats. For instance, they generally contain wetlands that form at the margins of the land and the sea, and are unique in that they link marine (subtidal and intertidal), freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. On the seaward side are banks, shoals, sand flats, mud flats and saltmarsh habitats, which link to fringing habitats such as sand‑dunes, shingle ridges and coastal marshes, in turn linking to progressively less saline terrestrial habitats, such as freshwater marshes and coastal grassland, in a landward direction.

Characteristic features of estuaries include:

  1. extensive intertidal areas including saltmarshes, mudflats and sand flats,
  2. semi‑diurnal or diurnal tidal regime,
  3. wave shelter,
  4. water layering and mixing,
  5. temperature and salinity gradients,
  6. sediment suspension and transport,
  7. high productivity,
  8. high levels and rapid exchange of nutrients,
  9. the presence of plants and animals particularly adapted to these conditions, and
  10. the presence of migrant and seasonally fluctuating populations of animals (particularly birds).

Within EstSim (EstSim Consortium, 2007) the physical features of estuaries have been classified into the following units:

A generic description of each of the above elements can be found in Estuary geomorphic elements - PDF 812KB (ABPmer, 2007) under the following headings:

Estuary processes

The prevailing processes in the estuary clearly determine many of these characteristic features. It is therefore important to have a sound appreciation of what processes one might expect to find and how to go about determining the relative importance of the different processes. Fortunately this is an area that has been the subject of considerable research and as a result there is a lot of background information available. A good starting point is a number of standard texts on the subject of which there are many. For example, from a physical perspective the books by Ippen (1966), McDowell & O’Connor (1977), and Dyer (1997) provide a useful introduction and from a more geomorphological perspective, books by Pethick (1984), Carter (1988), and Carter and Woodroffe (1994) have chapters on estuaries.

The estuary is an area of transition from the tidal conditions seaward to the freshwater flows from landward. Not only does this involve a change from the reversing tidal flow to the uni‑directional river flows upstream, but there is also a transition from saline to freshwater conditions. As saline and freshwater bodies meet, mixing takes place, to a greater or lesser degree, and can give rise to a marked interface between the two bodies and the occurrence of internal waves on the interface between the two. Such salinity gradients can also set up density flows, which can be directed both along and across the estuary depending on the size of the estuary. These water movements are further complicated by the presence of surface waves. As well as waves formed within the estuary, waves can also be generated externally (i.e. offshore) and propagate into the estuary.

The complexity of water movements is reflected in the sediment transport pathways within the system. Sediments can be supplied from marine or freshwater sources. In some estuaries, sediment is brought down rivers when they are in flood, and in from the sea during periodic storms. There can be a high degree of sediment reworking within an estuary, and erosional and depositional shores can exist in close proximity. Although many intertidal mudflats and sand flats appear relatively stable at least in the medium term, such areas can be quite dynamic, with deposition and erosion taking place at comparable rates and leading to a form of dynamic equilibrium. Sediments can be cycled on a variety of timescales, for example, changes in the configuration of channels and bed forms can occur over periods as short as days, whilst also responding to longer‑term effects such as changing sea levels. The feedback between accretion, water movements and sediment transport is expressed schematically in Figure 3.3.

Estuaries are often characterised by the deposition of fine sediment. This means that the movement of fine material (sand and mud) is a crucial component of estuarine sediment pathways and this will often be superimposed on the movement of coarser sand fractions. Hence, the variety of environments and sediment sources, coupled with the linkage between erosion and accretion in different areas in the same estuary, highlight the need to consider the estuary system as a whole.

Figure 3.3 Simplified representation of morphological model
Simplified  representation of morphological model

Estuary characterisation

There are a number of measures that do not require detailed modelling but collectively convey a great deal about the type of estuary. These can be as simple as an examination of the length and depth compared to the tidal range, the plan form in terms of variation of width along the estuary or the dimensions of any meanders. The following tables set out some of the properties which, collectively, can be used to characterise an estuary (Dun & Townend, 1998). The first table defines a range of measured, or observed, properties,Table 3. 6. These are often supplemented with a number of interpreted or derived properties that express particular attributes of the system, particularly in relation to equilibrium or steady state concepts as summarised in Table 3. 7.

Table 3.6 Summary of measured estuary properties
Property Definition or reference
Lengths Usually overall and to key change points (e.g. from mouth to tidal limit).
Plan Areas Helps to include area of catchment and floodplain as well as estuary area at various elevations. Features such as saltmarsh and intertidal may also be analysed individually.
Cross-sectional areas Typically at the mouth and tidal limit.
Volumes Usually in terms of volume below a given level (e.g. MHW, MLW) and the volume of the tidal exchange (prism). Useful to also examine variation with chainage.
Widths and Depths Indicative values at mouth, tidal limit and as an average over estuary length.
Tidal levels and range Spring and neap values at locations along the estuary.
Freshwater flows Magnitude of annual mean daily flow rate and peak values.
Geology Usually mapped from available borehole records and provides essential information on potential constraints to long-term change.
Geomorphology Mapped from maps, charts, aerial photographs, remote sensing images and field survey data to show all major forms - includes features such as saltmarsh, mudflat, cheniers, spits and nesses, bed forms, artificial channels and reclamations, ridges, cliffs, dunes, etc.


Surficial sediments need to be characterised to assess sediment sources, sinks and transport regimes (McLaren & Bowles, 1985).

Table 3.7 Summary of derived estuary properties
Property Definition or reference
Form descriptions Parameters for variation of width, depth and cross-sectional area to power and exponential law descriptions, see (Prandle & Rahman, 1980; Prandle, 1985).
Estuary number Indicates degree of stratification (Ippen, 1966).
Tidal wavelength (l) Simplistically this can be obtained using linear wave theory and either the depth at the mouth or the average depth. Ippen (1966) gives a method of computing the wave number and hence the wavelength for a standing wave, including friction. This gives a very rough indication of possible tidal resonance (l/4) but methods using the shape functions are more reliable (Prandle, 1985)..
Tidal constituent ratio’s The diurnal/semi-diurnal ratio indicates the dominant duration of the tidal cycle (McDowell & O'Connor, 1977). An examination of the M4 to M2 ratios (magnitude and phase) also gives a useful measure of the importance of non-linear effects within the estuary, (Friedrichs & Aubrey, 1988).
Tidal asymmetry Examination of the duration and magnitude of flood and ebb velocities, together with timing of slack waters provides a useful indication of potential movement of coarse and fine sediments and the type of tidal basin (Dronkers, 1986; Dronkers, 1998).
Hydraulic geometry relationships Measures of form against discharge or tidal prism properties (usually derived from a model and/or measurements) - tidal prism v cross-sectional area (O'Brien, 1931; Gao & Collins, 1994), plan area v volume (Renger & Partenscky, 1974) and hydraulic geometry or regime relationships (Langbein, 1963; Spearman et al., 1998).

An example of the sort of information that can be extracted is given in Table 3.8. This presents the data for the Humber Estuary in the UK and both measured and derived information are presented in the same table to provide an overview. Where more detailed information on water levels, currents, salinity gradients and suspended sediment loads are available it is possible to elaborate on many of these descriptions. As a simple example, where water levels over a tidal cycle are available at intervals along the estuary, by overlaying them it may be possible to get an immediate impression of how the tidal wave alters as it propagates upstream. If high and low waters occur at about the same time and there is little distortion taking place this is characteristic of a standing wave. Where high waters are delayed in an upstream direction, the characteristic is closer to a progressive wave. Marked amplification and asymmetry further indicate that there are significant shallow water effects. If information on tidal currents is also available this can be used to examine various measures of tidal asymmetry in more detail (see section on asymmetry in Study methods).

Table 3.8 Key characteristics for the Humber Estuary
Property Values for the Humber
Lengths To Trent Falls, 62km; to tidal limit on R Trent, 147km
Plan Areas Catchment area = 23,690 km2; Flood plain area = 1,100 km2
Plan area @ HW = 2.8 x 108 m2; @ LW = 1.8 x 108 m2 (*)
Intertidal area = 1 x 108 m2 (*)
Saltmarsh area = 6.3 x 106 m2 (*)          (* between Spurn and Trent Falls)
Cross-sectional areas CSA @ mouth =  85538 m2 to mtl
Volumes Total volume @ HW = 2.5 x 109 m3 and @ LW = 1.1 x 109 m3
Tidal prism, springs = 1.5 x 109 m3 and neaps = 0.8 x 109 m3.
Widths and Depths Width @ mouth = 6620 m; hydraulic depth @ mouth = 13.2 m
Width @ tidal limit = 52 m; hydraulic depth @ tidal limit = 2.9 m
Average width = 4265 m; average hydraulic depth = 6.5 m
Form descriptions Area=84.exp(6.7.x/l);  r2 = 0.99
Width=198.exp(3.7.x/l);  r2 = 0.89
Depth=0.55.exp(3.x/l);  r2 = 0.91                                       (Length, l=145 km)
Tidal levels and range MHWS = 3.0; MHWN = 1.6; MLWN = -1.2; MLWS = -2.8
(all levels metres Ordnance Datum Newlyn at Bull Sand Fort)
Freshwater flows Average flow = 240 m3/s; High flow = 1600 m3/s
Estuary number Average fresh water flow, springs = 3.43; neaps = 0.75
High fresh water flow, springs = 0.52; neaps = 0.11
(cf  E > 0.09 indicates progressively well mixed conditions, (Ippen, 1966)
Tidal wavelength Using linear theory (i) with depth at mouth, λ = 500 km; (ii) with average depth, λ = 350 km
Tidal constituent ratio’s F=0.06 i.e. tide is semi-diurnal (o[0.1] semi-diurnal, o[10] diurnal)
M4/M2 amplitude = 0.003; 2M2-M4 phase = 223 at mouth
M4/M2 amplitude = 0.25; 2M2-M4 phase = 52 at Burton Stather on R. Trent.
(i.e. significant sea surface distortion and ebb dominance at the mouth changing to flood dominance upstream)
Tidal asymmetry Dronkers gamma -1 = -0.05; 0.13; 1.51
Net excursion* = -1.35; -10.35; -0.9 km
Net slack duration+ = 0.18; 0.22; 0 hrs
Values are for Spurn, Hull and Trent Falls. Positive values indicate flood dominance.
Indicates dominance for:
- tidal equilibrium
- coarse sediment
- fine sediment
Thresholds used:
* >0.9m/s; + <0.2m/s
Hydraulic geometry relationships CSA/tidal prism = 5.7 x 10-5 m-1 (springs) and 1 x 10-4 m-1 (neaps)
LW volume/HW plan area2 = 1.32 x 10-8 m-1
LW plan area/HW plan area1.5 = 3.8 x 10-5 m-1
Discharge exponents: Mean velocity,  m = 0.1  (r2=0.39)
                                    Width,               b = 0.48 (r2=0.85)
                                    Mean depth,     f = 0.41  (r2=0.91)
                                    Energy slope,   z = -0.2  (r2=0.89)
Geology See Jones (1988); BGS (1982), and Humber holocene chronology - PDF 871KB (ABPmer, 2004)
Geomorphology See McQuillin et al. (1969)
Sedimentology See McQuillin et al. (1969)

Form and function

Whilst classification, as discussed above, says something of the origin of an estuary, and the characterisation sets out some important properties, neither fully explains the observed form. For this we need to consider what is the purpose, or function, of an estuary and how does this influence the ensuing form?  Fairbridge (1980) defines an estuary as “an inlet of the sea reaching into a river valley as far as the upper limit of tidal rise”. In general, there is no forcing that creates an inlet from seaward. Rather, antecedent conditions give rise to low-lying land within a valley that as sea level rises can be flooded from seaward. Such valleys can be formed by a number of different processes as indicated in Table 3.1. Alternatively, river flows cut a channel to the sea, which as the channel grows in size, or the river deposits sediments to form a tidal delta, progressively allows greater penetration from the sea.

For inlets and estuaries around the world, the tide and river flows can each vary from being dominant to non-existent. Hence there is a spectrum that encompasses the full range of possible interactions. The function of the estuary is to accommodate this interaction and in doing so its form must reflect this role. Of course superimposed on this are other functions, more typical of any water-land interface, where, for instance, the action of waves and current give rise to characteristic forms for the beaches or banks.

The inflow from rivers and the movement of tides give rise to sediment transport in and out of the estuary. Thus the estuary functions as an open system with exchanges of energy, water and sediment with the surrounding systems (catchment and open sea). However in transporting water and sediment there are inevitable losses of energy due to dissipative processes, such as friction and heat loss. As such, this type of open system continuously expends energy and the ceaseless flow of energy gives rise to a dynamic ‘steady state’, taking the place of equilibrium (or steady state) (Thompson, 1961). The various forms of equilibria are illustrated in Figure 3.4. This dynamic steady state is itself transient simply because the inputs from external environments change and the constraints on the system also change as the estuary develops (e.g. the solid geology may vary).

The time taken to respond to a given perturbation will also vary for individual features and this will tend to introduce lags into the system. Consequently, it is more probable that the system will be in transition, moving towards a steady state, rather than in a steady-state condition.

In other words, it is a juxtaposition of:

  1. the behaviour of the component parts, each seeking their own target state, but subject to changes in linked components; and
  2. the mix of space and time scales.

Thus, when discussing system states (of whatever form: equilibrium, steady, dynamic, quasi, etc), there is a need to be very clear about which parts of the system are involved and over what timescale the state is determined.

From this, it can be concluded that the function of the estuary is to accommodate an energy exchange by redistributing water and sediment. At any instant, the prevailing conditions may generate a “target” steady state and the estuary will seek to adjust to achieve this. As the estuary is observed, it may, therefore, be fluctuating about its steady state, or transiting towards the steady state and fluctuating as it does so. Superimposed on this behaviour, will be the changes in input conditions and constraints, which together may:

  1. alter the rate of transition towards a given state,
  2. cause a switch to different but similar (in form) target state, or
  3. cause a switch to a different state altogether.

In the context of the entire estuary, the system is searching for an optimum state. To move to a different state would require a major perturbation of the surrounding landform, such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption or glaciation. So it can happen but is very rare. For most purposes and timescales of interest, the estuary form, as a whole, can be considered to be stable. The system will simply continue to adjust its form in response to changes in energy inputs and constraints. These changes are generally internal to the estuary system and as a consequence it is the internal features that exhibit the range of responses outlined as the system searches for an optimum steady state. Thus a progressive increase in river flows might cause channels to enlarge (a transition), whereas a major flood event might cause channel switching (a switch in position), or a switch from meandering to braided channels (a switch in form). The first two are essentially changes in the given state. In contrast, the switch in form is an example of moving to a different state, for the channel feature, but not the estuary as a whole.

This provides a basis for thinking about the overall condition of the system and how specific features within it may behave. However the interaction of processes and form remains something of a conundrum. Although the size and shape of an estuarine channel is a response to tidal processes, it is nevertheless apparent that tidal discharge is itself dependent on the morphology of the estuarine channel since this determines the overall tidal prism. Entering this loop requires some of the constraints in the system to be identified.

One of the principal constraints that defines the size and shape of an estuary must be the antecedent form of the catchment basin, as already discussed. This determines the tidal length of the estuary, a characteristic dimension, which is dependent on the macro-scale slope of the coastal plain, fluvial discharge, and the tidal range in the nearshore zone. The tidal range and morphology within the estuary is then a response to these independent factors.

In some specific cases, further constraints to the closed cause-effect system are present. These constraints may be geological features such as sills, moraines or changes in geological strata, which limit control how the estuary can adjust. Equally, anthropogenic limits to width or depth, such as urban areas or harbour facilities, can constrain how an estuary responds to changing conditions.

Figure 3.4 Forms of equilibrium (Chorley & Kennedy, 1971)
Forms of equilibrium

In each case, the identification of such constraints can be seen as a method of reducing the number of degrees of freedom and providing a point of entry into the cause-effect feedback loop. It is for this reason that developments within an estuary need to be considered in terms of both their local and estuary wide impacts (Pontee & Townend, 1999). Consequently, when examining development proposals or new activities, it is essential that the local and estuary wide implications be taken into account.

Given the extensive developments that have taken place in and around estuaries, there are now moves to restore the natural system or to “design” a natural estuary. An estuary forms a mix of habitats depending on the prevailing constraints. If the constraints are changed, then the estuary will adjust to establish a new dynamic equilibrium, consistent with the existing and new constraints. In order to “design” a natural estuary, the first stage would involve setting out societal preferences for particular types of habitat, as a basis for determining what constraints should be adjusted. This then runs the risk of establishing an even more artificial situation simply to meet societal preferences. A more preferable approach is, therefore, to take advantage of any opportunity that will increase the room in which the estuary can move, to respond to such things as sea level rise, by removing unnecessary constraints.



Movement of the earth's crust to produce surface irregularities.


Last Modified on: 19 June 2011
Printed from the Estuary Guide on 23/04/2014 19:35:58