Document Type

Technical Report

Publication Date



Ems River Estuary (Germany and Netherlands), Sediment transport, Estuaries


The Ems estuary has constantly changed over the past centuries both from man-made and natural influences. On the time scale of thousands of years, sea level rise has created the estuary and dynamically changed its boundaries. More recently, storm surges created the Dollard sub-basin in the 14th -15th centuries. Beginning in the 16th century, diking and reclamation of land has greatly altered the surface area of the Ems estuary, particularly in the Dollard. These natural and anthropogenic changes to the surface area of the Ems altered the flow patterns of water, the tidal characteristics, and the patterns of sediment deposition and erosion. Since 1945, reclamation of land has halted and the borders of the Ems estuary have changed little. Sea level rise has continued, and over the past 40 years the rate of increase in mean high water (MHW) along the German coast has accelerated to 40 cm/ century. Climate has varied on a decadal time scale due to long-term variations in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which controls precipitation, temperature, and the direction and magnitude of winds. Between 1960 and 1990 the most intense variation in the NAO index on record was observed. As a result the magnitude and frequency of storm surges increased, and mean wave heights increased at 1-2 cm/year. Currently the NAO index—and therefore storminess—is trending downwards. Over the longer term, global warming models predict an average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius over the next century. A doubling of CO2 is expected to increase sea level by 30 cm, while the significant wind speed and wave heights in the North Sea are predicted to increase by 50 cm/s and 50 cm, respectively.

Beginning in the late 1950’s, dredging activity and construction measures in harbours and shipping channels greatly altered the physical processes in the Ems. Deepening and streamlining the Ems River and shipping channel between the 1960s and 1990s decreased the hydraulic roughness and increased the tidal range in the river above Emden by as much as 1.5 m. At the turbidity maximum between Emden and Papenburg, concentrations of sediment are currently between 1-2 orders of magnitude larger than in the 1950’s, and fluid mud layers of several meters thickness occur. Other man-made changes, such as gas pipelines and the expansion of harbours, have often caused significant, but more localized, changes to the estuary.

Between the mid 19th century and the 1970’s, dumping of organic waste—agricultural, industrial, and human—severely stressed the ecology of the Dollard sub-basin in particular. Since then the input of organic waste has been greatly reduced and anoxic conditions eliminated. However, the increase in turbidity at the turbidity maximum has caused depleted oxygen concentrations and periodic anoxia between Pogum and Papenburg during the summer months (personal communication, H. Juergens; Talke et al, 2005).

The Ems is a relatively well studied estuary. Significant research projects have included the BOEDE project in the 1970’s --1980’s and the BOA and INTRAMUD projects in the 1990’s. These projects and other efforts have amassed a deep literature in the knowledge of tidal flats, fluid mud and flocculation, and mixing and dispersion processes. Projects currently underway are focusing on tidal dynamics and the affects of dredging in the high turbidity zone between Emden and Herbrum. Optimal management of the estuary is the goal of the HARBASINS project.

Many analytical and numerical models have been applied to the Ems estuary to estimate tidal range, storm surges, wave fields, sediment transport, and mixing and dispersion processes. Analytical models to estimate mixing of scalars and sediment fluxes (Sediment Trend Analysis) have been extensively used. Numerical models such as WAQUA, unTRIM, MIKE3, Telemac 2D, SWAN, Delft 3D –Sed, and others have been applied to the Ems. While reasonable results are found for short term processes (order of days), long-term morphological change cannot yet be predicted. For the Ems catchement basin, the numerical models REGFLUD and FLUMAGIS are used to estimate nutrient inputs from diffuse sources and to visualize and evaluate the effects of land-use change.


IMAU Report # R06-01

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