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What is an Estuary?

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The daily tides experienced by coastal areas can have dramatic effects on an estuarine ecosystem. These images show the remarkable daily rise of waters at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in California. Click here for more details. (Photo: Elkhorn Slough NERRS site)

An estuary is a partially enclosed body of water, and its surrounding coastal habitats, where saltwater from the ocean mixes with fresh water from rivers or streams. In fresh water the concentration of salts, or salinity, is nearly zero. The salinity of water in the ocean averages about 35 parts per thousand (ppt). The mixture of seawater and fresh water in estuaries is called brackish water and its salinity can range from 0.5 to 35 ppt. The salinity of estuarine water varies from estuary to estuary, and can change from one day to the next depending on the tides, weather, or other factors (Levinton, 1995.)

Estuaries are transitional areas that straddle the land and the sea, as well as freshwater and saltwater habitats. The daily tides (the regular rise and fall of the sea's surface) are a major influence on many of these dynamic environments. Most areas of the Earth experience two high and two low tides each day. Some areas, like the Gulf of Mexico, have only one high and one low tide each day. The tidal pattern in an estuary depends on its geographic location, the shape of the coastline and ocean floor, the depth of the water, local winds, and any restrictions to water flow. For example, tides at the end of a long, narrow inlet might be amplified because a large volume of water is being forced into a very small space. However, the tides in wetlands composed of broad mud flats might appear to be rather small. With the variety of conditions across the Earth, each estuary displays a tidal pattern unique to its location (Niesen 1982).

boat off the shore
video cam Click on image to see a movie of a daily tidal cycle near Anchorage, Alaska.

While strongly affected by tides and tidal cycles, many estuaries are protected from the full force of ocean waves, winds, and storms by reefs, barrier islands, or fingers of land, mud, or sand that surround them. The characteristics of each estuary depend upon the local climate, freshwater input, tidal patterns, and currents. Truly, no two estuaries are the same.
Yet they are typically classified based on two characteristics: their geology and how saltwater and fresh water mix in them.

However, not all estuaries contain brackish waters. There are a small number of ecosystems classified as freshwater estuaries. These estuaries occur where massive freshwater systems, such as the Great Lakes in the United States, are diluted by river or stream waters draining from adjacent lands.

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