An Idealized Study of the Structure of Long, Partially Mixed Estuaries* Academic Article uri icon


  • Classic models of estuarine circulation are reexamined using a three-dimensional, primitive equation numerical ocean model. The model is configured using an idealized estuary/shelf domain with rectangular cross section, constant vertical mixing, and steady riverine discharge. Tidal dispersion is neglected, so the analysis does apply to well-mixed estuaries and lagoons. Estuarine scales for the length of steady-state salt intrusion, vertical stratification, and estuarine exchange flow estimated from steady-state model results are found to have the same functional relationships to vertical mixing and riverine discharge as the classic analytic solutions. For example, for steady-state conditions, the stratification is found to be virtually independent of the strength of vertical mixing. The estuarine structure was controlled by the interior estuarine circulation, and not by limited exchange at the mouth. Thus, the numerical solutions were not “overmixed,” although the solutions showed a dependence on freshwater flux functionally similar to the overmixed solution. Estuarine adjustment time scales are also estimated from the simulations, and they are related to the steady-state estuarine scales. Two classes of nonsteady solutions are examined: the response to a step change in riverine discharge and estuarine response to changes in vertical mixing. Spring/neap tidal variations are examined by modulating the (spatially constant) vertical mixing with a fortnightly period. Unlike the steady solutions, there is a clear dependence of stratification on mixing rate in the time-dependent solutions. The simulations involving changes in riverine discharge show asymmetries between response to increasing and decreasing river flow that are attributed to quadratic bottom drag.

publication date

  • December 2004