Partly enclosed coastal body of water in which river water is mixed with seawater. An estuary is thus defined by salinity rather than geography. Many coastal features designated by other names are in fact estuaries (e.g., Chesapeake Bay). Some of the oldest continuous civilizations have flourished in estuarine environments (e.g., the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Nile delta, the Ganges delta, and the lower Huang He valley). Cities such as London (River Thames), New York (Hudson River), and Montreal (St. Lawrence River) developed on estuaries and became important commercial centres.
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Estuary on the Bay of Biscay, southwestern France. Formed by the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, it extends for about 45 mi (72 km) inland. It is navigable for oceangoing vessels, although it has sandbanks and strong tides.
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An estuary is a semi-enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. Estuaries are often associated with high levels of biological diversity.
Estuaries are typically the tidal mouths of rivers (aestus is Latin for tide), and they are often characterized by sedimentation or silt carried in from terrestrial runoff and, frequently, from offshore. They are made up of brackish water. Estuaries are often given names like bay, sound, fjord, etc. The terms are not mutually exclusive.
Estuaries are marine environments whose pH, salinity, and water levels vary, depending on the river that feeds the estuary and the ocean from which it derives its salinity (oceans and seas have different salinity levels). The time it takes an estuary to completely cycle is called its flushing time.
These two terms, however, have a broader oceanographic application that extends beyond estuaries proper, such as in describing the circulation of nearly-closed ocean basins.
Estuaries are more likely to occur on submerged coasts, where the sea level has risen in relation to the land; this process floods valleys to form rias and fjords. These can become estuaries if there is a stream or river flowing into them.
Large estuaries, like Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, often have many streams flowing into them and can have complex shapes. Where an enormous volume of river water enters the sea (as, for example, from the Amazon into the South Atlantic) its estuary could be considered to extend well beyond the coast.
Grouped by structure rather than circulation, there are other types of estuaries.
As ecosystems, estuaries are under threat from human activities such as pollution and overfishing. Estuaries are impacted by events far upstream, and concentrate materials such as pollutants and sediments. Land run-off and industrial, agricultural, and domestic waste enter rivers and are discharged into estuaries. Contaminants can be introduced which do not disintegrate rapidly in the marine environment, such as plastics, pesticides, furans, dioxins, phenols and heavy metals.
Such toxins can accumulate in the tissues of many species of aquatic life in a process called bioaccumulation. They also accumulate in benthic environments, such as estuaries and bay muds: a geological record of human activities of the last century.
For example, Chinese and Russian industrial pollution, such as phenols and heavy metals, in the Amur River have devastated fish stocks and damaged its estuary soil.
Estuaries tend to be naturally eutrophic because land runoff discharges nutrients into estuaries. With human activities, land run-off also now includes the many chemicals used as fertilizers in agriculture as well as waste from livestock and humans. Excess oxygen depleting chemicals in the water can lead to hypoxia and the creation of dead zones. It can result in reductions in water quality, fish, and other animal populations.
Over fishing also occurs. Chesapeake Bay, North America's largest estuary, once had a flourishing oyster population which has been almost wiped out by overfishing. Historically the oysters filtered the estuary's entire water volume of excess nutrients every three or four days. Today that process takes almost a year, and sediment, nutrients, and algae can cause problems in local waters. Oysters filter these pollutants, and either eat them or shape them into small packets that are deposited on the bottom where they are harmless.