Under laboratory conditions, pure water contains only oxygen and hydrogen atoms, but in the real world, many substances are often dissolved in water, like salt. Salinity is the concentration of salt in water, usually measured in parts per thousand (ppt). The salinity of seawater in the open ocean is remarkably constant at about 35 ppt. Salinity in an estuary varies according to one's location in the estuary, the daily tides, and the volume of fresh water flowing into the estuary.
In estuaries, salinity levels are generally highest near the mouth of a river where the ocean water enters, and lowest upstream where freshwater flows in. Actual salinities vary throughout the tidal cycle, however. Salinity levels in estuaries typically decline in the spring when snowmelt and rain increase the freshwater flow from streams and groundwater. Salinity levels usually rise during the summer when higher temperatures increase levels of evaporation in the estuary.
Estuarine organisms have different tolerances and responses to salinity changes. Many bottom-dwelling animals, like oysters and crabs, can tolerate some change in salinity, but salinities outside an acceptable range will negatively affect their growth and reproduction, and ultimately, their survival.
Salinity also affects chemical conditions within the estuary, particularly levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. The amount of oxygen that can dissolve in water, or solubility, decreases as salinity increases. The solubility of oxygen in seawater is about 20 percent less than it is in fresh water at the same temperature.