Tidal channel networks, estuaries and ebb deltas are usually formed over a period longer than observations cover. Much is known about their characteristics and formation from linear stability analyses, numerical modelling and field observations. However, experiments are rare whilst these can provide data-rich descriptions of morphological evolution in fully controlled boundary and initial conditions. Our objective is to ascertain whether tidal basins can be formed in experiments, what the possible scale effects are, and whether morphological equilibrium of such systems exists.
We experimentally created tidal basins with simple channel networks and ebb deltas in a 1.2 by 1.2 m square basin with either a fixed or self-formed tidal inlet and initially flat sediment bed in the tidal basin raised above the bed of the sea. Rather than create tides by varying water level, we tilted the entire basin over the diagonal. The advantage of this novel method is that the bed surface slopes in downstream direction both during flood and ebb phases, resulting in significant transport and morphological change in the flood phase as well as the ebb phase. This overcomes the major problem of earlier experiments which were entirely ebb-dominated, and reduces the experiment time by an order of magnitude.
Ebb deltas formed in sand were entirely bedload dominated whereas the lightweight plastic sediment was intermittently suspended. Channels bifurcated during channel deepening and backward erosion to form a network of up to four orders. For initially dry tidal plains, the tidal prism increased as more sediment eroded from basin to ebb delta, so that evolution accelerated initially. The rate of change, the size of the channels and the final length of channels and delta were very sensitive to the tidal amplitude, tidal period and initial water depth in the basin. Most experiments with sand terminated with all sediment below the threshold for motion, whilst lightweight sediment remained mobile in the inlet region and firstorder channels, suggesting that sustained morphodynamics are feasible in experiments. We discuss how this novel experimental setup can be extended to produce tidal deltas, estuaries and other tidal systems and study their dynamics as a function of their forcing.