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Estuaries shaped by biomorphodynamics, inherited landscape conditions and human interference

To develop models for large-scale planform shape and size of sandy estuaries and predict past and future, large-scale effects of biomorphological interactions and inherited conditions

ESTUARIES are shallow coastal water bodies with river inflow shaped by biomorphological processes, with patterns of channels and shoals, sand/mud flats, tidal marshes, vegetated banks and peat. Development was influenced by early Holocene landscape that drowned under sea-level rise, and by human interference.Estuaries harbour highly productive natural habitats and are of pivotal economic importance for food production, access to harbours and urban safety. Accelerating sea-level rise, changing river discharge and interference threaten these functions, but we lack fundamental understanding and models to predict combined effects of biomorphological interactions, inherited landscape and changing drivers. We did not understand to what extent present estuary planform shape and shoal patterns resulted from biomorphological processes interacting with inherited conditions and interference. Ecology suggests dominant effects of flow-resisting and sediment de/stabilising eco-engineering species. Yet abiotic physics-based models reproduce channel-shoal patterns surprisingly well, but must assume a fixed planform estuary shape. Holocene reconstructions emphasise inherited landscape- and agricultural effects on this planform shape, yet fossil shells and peat also imply eco-engineering effects.My aims are to develop models for large-scale planform shape and size of sandy estuaries and predict past and future, large-scale effects of biomorphological interactions and inherited conditions.We significantly advanced our understanding by new bio-geomorphological models, unique analogue landscape experiments in the Metronome with live eco-engineers, paleo-geographic reconstructions of Holocene estuaries on the south-east North Sea coast and reconstruction of the coastal environments before and during evolution of land plants. We also built automated pattern recognition software for the intertidal habitats in estuaries and tidal basins and for multi-channel networks.

List of publications

Academic publications

McMahon, William J., Alexander G. Liu, Benjamin H. Tindal, Maarten G. Kleinhans; Ediacaran life close to land: Coastal and shoreface habitats of the Ediacaran macrobiota, the Central Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Journal of Sedimentary Research 2021;; 90 (11): 1463–1499. doi:

Weisscher, S.A.H., Boechat-Albernaz, M., Leuven, J.R.F.W., van Dijk, W.M., Shimizu, Y. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2020). Complementing scale experiments of rivers and estuaries with numerically modelled hydrodynamics. Earth Surface Dynamics, 8, (pp. 955-972) (18 p.).

Hiatt, Matthew, Sonke, Willem, Addink, Elisabeth A., van Dijk, Wout M., van Kreveld, Marc, Ophelders, Tim, Verbeek, Kevin, Vlaming, Joyce, Speckmann, Bettina & Kleinhans, Maarten G. (2020). Geometry and Topology of Estuary and Braided River Channel Networks Automatically Extracted From Topographic Data. Journal of Geophysical Research, 125 (1) (19 p.).

Xie, Danghan, Schwarz, Christian, Brückner, Muriel Z M, Kleinhans, Maarten G, Urrego, Dunia H, Zhou, Zeng & Van Maanen, Barend (2020). Mangrove diversity loss under sea-level rise triggered by bio-morphodynamic feedbacks and anthropogenic pressures. Environmental Research Letters, 15 (11).

Boechat Albernaz, Marcio, Roelofs, Lonneke, Pierik, Harm Jan & Kleinhans, Maarten G. (2020). Natural levee evolution in vegetated fluvial-tidal environments. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 45 (15), (pp. 3824-3841) (18 p.).

Bij de Vaate, Inger, Brückner, M.Z.M., Kleinhans, M.G. & Schwarz, C.S. (2020). On the impact of salt marsh pioneer species‐assemblages on the emergence of intertidal channel networks. Water Resources Research, 56 (3) (17 p.).

Brückner, M.Z.M., Braat, L., Schwarz, C.S. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2020). What Came First, Mud or Biostabilizers? Elucidating Interacting Effects in a Coupled Model of Mud, Saltmarsh, Microphytobenthos, and Estuarine Morphology. Water Resources Research, 56 (9), (pp. 1-24).

Baar, A. W., Boechat Albernaz, M., van Dijk, W. M. & Kleinhans, M. G. (2019). Critical dependence of morphodynamic models of fluvial and tidal systems on empirical downslope sediment transport. Nature Communications, 10 (1) (12 p.).

Albernaz, Marcio B., Ruessink, B.G., Jagers, H.R.A. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2019). Effects of wave orbital velocity parameterization on nearshore sediment transport and decadal morphodynamics. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, 7 (6) (27 p.).

Kleinhans, Maarten, Douma, Harke & Addink, Elisabeth A. (2019). Fate of pioneering vegetation patches in a dynamic meandering river. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 44 (8), (pp. 1618-1632) (15 p.).

de Haas, T., Van der Valk, B., Cohen, K.M., Pierik, H.J., Weisscher, S.A.H., Hijma, M.P., van der Spek, A. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2019). Long-term evolution of the Old Rhine estuary – unraveling effects of changing boundary conditions and inherited landscape. Depositional Record, 5 (1), (pp. 84–108).

Brückner, M.Z.M., Schwarz, C.S., van Dijk, W.M., van Oorschot, M., Douma, H. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2019). Salt Marsh Establishment and Eco‐Engineering Effects in Dynamic Estuaries Determined by Species Growth and Mortality. Journal of Geophysical Research, 124 (12), (pp. 2962-2986) (25 p.).

Lokhorst, Ivar R., de Lange, Sjoukje I., van Buiten, Gerard, Selaković, Sanja & Kleinhans, Maarten G. (2019). Species selection and assessment of eco-engineering effects of seedlings for biogeomorphological landscape experiments. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 44 (14), (pp. 2922-2935) (14 p.).

Weisscher, Steven A.H., Shimizu, Yasuyuki & Kleinhans, Maarten G. (2019). Upstream perturbation and floodplain formation effects on chute-cutoff-dominated meandering river pattern and dynamics. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 44 (11), (pp. 2156-2169).

Leuven, J.R.F.W., Verhoeve, Steye, van Dijk, W.M., Selakovic, S. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2018). Empirical Assessment Tool for Bathymetry, Flow Velocity and Salinity in Estuaries Based on Tidal Amplitude and Remotely-Sensed Imagery. Remote Sensing, 10 (12) (32 p.).

de Haas, T., Pierik, H.J., van der Spek, A., Cohen, K.M., van Maanen, B. & Kleinhans, M.G. (2018). Holocene evolution of tidal systems in The Netherlands – Effects of rivers, coastal boundary conditions, eco-engineering species, inherited relief and human interference. Earth-Science Reviews, 177, (pp. 139-163) (25 p.).

Kleinhans, Maarten G, de Vries, Bente, Braat, Lisanne & van Oorschot, Mijke (2018). Living landscapes – Muddy and vegetated floodplain effects on fluvial pattern in an incised river. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 43 (14), (pp. 2948-2963) (16 p.).

Lokhorst, Ivar R., Braat, Lisanne, Leuven, Jasper R.F.W., Baar, Anne W., Van Oorschot, Mijke, Selaković, Sanja & Kleinhans, Maarten G. (2018). Morphological effects of vegetation on the tidal-fluvial transition in Holocene estuaries. Earth Surface Dynamics, 6 (4), (pp. 883-901) (19 p.).

Leuven, Jasper R.F.W., Selakovic, S. & Kleinhans, Maarten G. (2018). Morphology of bar-built estuaries – Empirical relation between planform shape and depth distribution. Earth Surface Dynamics, 6 (3), (pp. 763-778) (16 p.).


Muriel Brückner (2021), Modeling estuaries as eco-engineered landscapes : How species shape the morphology of past, present and future estuaries, Utrecht Studies in Earth Sciences 226,

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Contact details

Maarten Kleinhans

General info

Duration: 12/2015 - 02/2021

Research Positions: 7


ERC Consolidator grant