Estuaries and tidal rivers

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For a more complete introduction see: Morphology of estuaries

This article sets out to introduce the reader to the concept of an estuary and the relationship with tidal rivers. Estuaries are highly complex and dynamic ecosystems [1]. At their simplest estuaries can be defined in relation to their form and function [2]. The definition of an estuary used here encompasses both these aspects.


The physical form provides a basis for discussing the importance of an individual estuary, including:

1 Drowned river valleys. They develop where the land was inundated by the sea when sea levels rose rapidly (about 20mm per year) towards the end of the last glaciation between 15,000 and 7,000 years ago [3]. At its height around 8,000 years ago, when a catastrophic melting of the ice cap took place in northwest Europe, it may have been as much as 75mm per year [4]. The ‘pulse’ of sediment mobilised and moved landward by these events has helped create the extensive low-lying coastal plains where sediment movement plays an important part in the development of the estuary structure.

2 Bar-built estuaries. Similar to (1) above but where tidal influence and hence sediment penetration is restricted. This may be caused by the nature of the hinterland but usually stems from the presence of spits, bars or barrier islands which surround the river mouth and help create embayments. Because of the restricted opening to the sea, some of these may more closely resemble lagoons.

3 Rias. Tidal inlets which are closely related to drowned river valleys though here the steep-sided nature of the land results in a much narrower profile. Depending on the elevation of the adjacent land, these estuaries may reach some distance inland with a series of side arms and are developed on rocky coasts.

4 Fjords and fjards which occur in glaciated, rocky coastal areas. Fjords with very steep walls occur in areas of high relief. Fjards occur in areas of low relief and may include shallow marine waters and small islands (skerries). For both the hard rock nature of the land results in a limited sediment supply.

Some of these estuary types may also provide a link with deltas and lagoons and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them. They appear to occur mostly on meso-tidal coasts where wave energy is relatively high (Pethick 1984) and in micro-tidal zones, such as the deltas of the Mediterranean.

Related articles

Further reading


  1. Pethick, J., 1984. An Introduction to Coastal Geomorphology. Edward Arnold.
  2. Healy, T.R., 2005. Estuaries. In: Encyclopedia of Coastal Science, ed., M. Schwartz, Springer, 436-439.
  3. Warrick, R.A., 1993. Climate and sea level change: a synthesis. In: Climate and Sea level Change - Observations, Projections and Implications, eds., R.A., Warrick, E.M. Barrow & T.M.L. Wigley, University Press, Cambridge, 3-24.
  4. Tooley, M.J., 1993. Long term changes in eustatic sea level. In: Climate and Sea Level Change - Observations, Projections and Implications, eds., R.A., Warrick, E.M. Barrow & T.M.L. Wigley, University Press, Cambridge, 81-110.

The main author of this article is Doody, Pat
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Doody, Pat (2020): Estuaries and tidal rivers. Available from [accessed on 24-11-2020]