1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Estuary

ESTUARY (from the Lat. aestuarium, a place reached by aestus, the tide), an arm of the sea narrowing inwards at the mouth of a river where sea and fresh water meet and are mixed, i.e. the tidal portion of a river’s mouth. Structurally the estuary may represent the long-continued action of river erosion and tidal erosion confined to a narrow channel, most effective where most concentrated, or an estuary may be the drowned portion of the lower part of a river-valley. In a map of Britain showing sea-depths it will be observed that under the Severn estuary the sea deepens in a number of steps descending by concentric V’s that become blunter towards deep water until the last is a mere indentation pointing towards the long narrow termination of the present estuary. In this and in similar cases the progress of the estuary is indicated upon what is now the continental shelf. The chief interest in estuarine conditions is the mingling of sea and fresh water. Where, as in the Severn and the Thames, the fresh water meets the sea gradually the water is mixed, and there is very little change in salinity at high tide. The fresh water flows over the salt water and there is a continuous rapid change in salinity towards the sea, for the currents sweeping in and out mix the water constantly. Where the river brings down a great quantity of fresh water in a narrow channel, the change of salinity at high and low water is very marked. “When, however, the inlet is very large compared with the river, and there is no bar at the opening, the estuarine character is only shown at the upper end. In the Firth of Forth, for example, the landward half is an estuary, but in the seaward half the water has become more thoroughly mixed, the salinity is almost uniform from surface to bottom, and increases very gradually towards the sea. The river-water meets the sea diffused uniformly through a deep mass of water scarcely fresher than the sea itself, so that the two mix uniformly, and the sea becomes slightly freshened throughout its whole depth for many miles from land” (H. R. Mill, Realm of Nature, 1897).