DOI: 10.1029/2023jc020371 ISSN: 2169-9275

The Structure and Dynamics of an Estuarine Tidal Intrusion Front

W. R. Geyer, D. K. Ralston, M. C. Haller, C. Bassett, D. Honegger
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Oceanography


Tidal intrusion fronts are surface convergences that occur at constrictions in estuaries during the flood tide, separating incoming higher‐salinity water from lower‐salinity, stratified estuarine water. Previous observations of tidal intrusion fronts describe a V‐shaped planform, with the apex of the V pointing into the estuary, however the significance of this structure has not been previously explained. Observations near the mouth of the James River estuary during the flood tide reveal the development of a quasi‐steady, V‐shaped front. Considering a reference frame oriented normal to the front, the velocity and density structure are consistent with gravity‐current dynamics, but the oblique orientation of the front relative to the impinging flow indicates strong, along‐front shear, which results from vorticity produced by flow separation at the lateral boundaries as well as topographic torque from upstream. The combination of convergence and along‐front shear leads to enhanced mixing, as revealed by acoustic backscatter images of shear instability and persistent subcritical gradient Richardson number in the frontal zone. Oblique fronts such as this tidal intrusion front are common features of estuaries, and they play an important role in vertical exchange due to subduction and mixing of surface water.

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