SPM response to tide and river flow in the hyper-turbid Ems River

Han Winterwerp, J Vroom, Zhengbing Wang, Martin Krebs, Erik Hendriks, Bas van Maren, Kerstin Schrottke, Christine Borgsmüller, Andreas Schöl

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In this paper, we analyse the behaviour of fine sediments in the hyper-turbid Lower Ems River, with focus on the river’s upper reaches, a stretch of about 25 km up-estuary of Terborg. Our analysis is based on long records of suspended particulate matter (SPM) from optical backscatter (OBS) measurements close to the bed at seven stations along the river, records of salinity and water level measurements at these stations, acoustic measurements on the vertical mud structure just up-estuary of Terborg and oxygen profiles in the lower 3 m of the water column close to Leerort and Terborg. Further, we use cross-sectionally averaged velocities computed with a calibrated numerical model. Distinction is made between four timescales, i.e. the semi-diurnal tidal timescale, the spring–neap tidal timescale, a timescale around an isolated peak in river flow (i.e. about 3 weeks) and a seasonal timescale. The
data suggest that a pool of fluid/soft mud is present in these upper reaches, from up-estuary of Papenburg to a bit downestuary
of Terborg. Between Terborg and Gandersum, SPM values drop rapidly but remain high at a few gram per litre. The pool of fluid/soft mud is entrained/mobilized at the onset of flood, yielding SPM values of many tens gram per litre. This suspension is transported up-estuary with the flood. Around high water slack, part of the suspension settles, being remixed during ebb, while migrating down-estuary, but likely not much further than Terborg. Around low water slack, a large fraction of the sediment settles, reforming the pool of fluid mud. The rapid entrainment from the fluid mud layer after low water slack is only possible when the peak flood velocity exceeds a critical value of around 1 m/s, i.e. when the stratified water column seems to become internally supercritical. If the peak flood velocity does not reach this critical value, f.i. during neap tide, fluid mud is not entrained up to the OBS sensors. Thus, it is not classical tidal asymmetry, but the peak flood velocity itself which governs the hyper-turbid state
in the Lower Ems River. The crucial role of river flow and river floods is in reducing these peak flood velocities. During elongated periods of high river flow, in e.g. wintertime, SPM concentrations reduce, and the soft mud deposits consolidate and possibly become locally armoured aswell by sand washed in from the river. We have no observations that sediments are washed out of the hyper-turbid zone. Down-estuary of Terborg, where SPM values do not reach hyper-turbid conditions, the SPMdynamics are governed by classical tidal asymmetry and estuarine circulation. Hence, nowhere in the river, sediments are flushed from the upper reaches of the river into the Ems-Dollard estuary during high river flow events. However, exchange of sediment between river and estuary should occur because of tide-induced dispersion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)559-583
Number of pages25
JournalOcean Dynamics: theoretical, computational oceanography and monitoring
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017


  • Tidal asymmetry
  • Hyper-turbid sediment


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