Sea-level-rise-induced threats depend on the size of tide-influenced estuaries worldwide

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The effects of sea-level rise on the future morphological functioning of estuaries are largely unknown because tidal amplitudes will change due to combined deepening of the estuary mouth and shifting amphidromic points at sea. Fluvial sediment supply is also globally decreasing, which hampers infilling necessary to maintain elevation relative to sea level. Here we model 36 estuaries worldwide with varying sizes, shapes and hydrodynamic characteristics, and find that small shallow estuaries and large deep estuaries respond in opposite ways to sea-level rise. Large estuaries are threatened by sediment starvation and therefore loss of intertidal area, particularly if tidal amplitude decreases at the mouth. In contrast, small estuaries face enhanced flood risks and are more sensitive to tidal amplification on sea-level-rise-induced deepening. Estuary widening can partly mitigate adverse effects. In large estuaries, expanded intertidal areas increase tidal prism and available erodible sediment for adaptation, whereas it slightly reduces tidal amplification in small estuaries.

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Fig. 1: SLR effects on boundary conditions of estuaries.
Fig. 2: Estuary size dependency on SLR-induced threats.
Fig. 3: Relative upstream sediment input from the catchment versus the range of required sediment for 1-m SLR depending on the change of tidal amplitude.
Fig. 4: Effects of managed realignment.
Fig. 5: Main responses of estuaries to SLR.

Data availability

All open access data are available in figures, tables and supplementary information. If used from other sources, it is indicated with references. Estuary outlines were collected from Google Earth and are available in the supplementary information of ref. 17. Along-channel width profiles, input values to run the morphological tool and the hydrodynamic model are available from Zenodo ( Other data are provided in the figures, tables and references.

Code availability

The code for the 1D hydrodynamic model is available from Zenodo ( The code for the morphological tool has been referenced32 and is available on GitHub (


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This work was funded by the Netherlands Science Foundation NWO-TTW under Vici grant no. 016.140.316/13710 (to M.G.K.).

Author information

J.R.F.W.L., M.G.K., T.J.B. conceived and designed the study. J.R.F.W.L. and H.J.P. collected the data. J.R.F.W.L. and M.v.d.V. carried out the modelling. J.R.F.W.L. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from H.J.P., M.v.d.V., T.J.B. and M.G.K.

Correspondence to Jasper R. F. W. Leuven.

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Supplementary Text 1, Figs. 1–7, Tables 1–4 and references.

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Leuven, J.R.F.W., Pierik, H.J., Vegt, M.v.d. et al. Sea-level-rise-induced threats depend on the size of tide-influenced estuaries worldwide. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2019) doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0608-4

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