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CHINA, 1998-2002

GAO Shu and JIA Jianjun

Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Coast and Island Development, Nanjing University,

Nanjing 210093, China


Progress in marine sediment dynamics and related researches in mainland China that has been made over the past four years is summarized under the headings of numerical modeling techniques, sediment dynamic processes and mechanisms, and instrument analyses. Hydrodynamics-based numerical models are now applied extensively to the studies of sedimentary processes or to the simulation of sediment transport and its environmental influences. Sediment dynamics of estuaries and tidal inlets have been a major concern, with advances being achieved in improvements to the existing transport formulae, studies on fine-grain sediment movement in estuaries/inlets and the resultant geomorphological consequences, and the use of grain size trends as an indication of net sediment transport. Recently, new and high technology has been introduced to mainland China in sediment dynamics, including the laser particle sizer and acoustic instruments (e.g. ABS and ADCP). A lot of work has been done for the calibration and utilization of these instruments; pretreatment procedures for grain size analysis have been evaluated, and the potential of deriving suspended sediment information using ADCP echo signals has been explored. Furthermore, new methods of obtaining suspended sediment concentration data from satellite images have been developed.

Key words:  Marine sediment dynamics, numerical models, transport processes, estuaries and tidal inlets, suspended sediment concentration, instrumentation


Marine sediment dynamics and related disciplines are considered as an important research field by the coastal engineers, physical oceanographers and marine geologists in mainland China. A number of research groups, belonging to government institutions and universities, are working actively in this field. Such a situation can be related more or less to the natural characteristics of China: there are large rivers discharging into the sea with extremely heavy sediment load, wide continental shelf seas with strong tidal currents and complex ocean current systems, and numerous estuaries and coastal embayments where sediment movement is active. Solution to the engineering problems associated with harbour siltation and maintenance of navigational channels were once of priority. Recently, new problems caused by modifications to the physical environment, pollution of coastal waters and degradation of marine ecosystems have become the focus for research. In terms of basic research, marine sediment dynamics is relevant to the science of granular material physics and global change studies represented by IGBP. The unique environment of the Chinese coastal waters provides a large potential for these studies. In the present short report, we intend to summarize the progress in this field made by the scientists of mainland China over the past four years, on the basis of a literature review of the refereed academic journals. The research topics of numerical modeling, sediment dynamic processes and mechanisms, as well as instrument analysis, are treated in three separate sections.



1.  Process Models

Numerical models have been used extensively to investigate into sediment dynamic processes. Recently, the method of adaptive mesh has been introduced and tested in the Changjiang estuary (Liu et al., 1999); this will overcome some difficulties caused by complex bathymetry and topography of the coastal zone and has a large potential of applications.

2D tidal models have been used to study sediment movement and resultant deposition on the continental shelf. In order to identify the areas where the tidal current is sufficiently weak to allow mud accumulation, the movement of eight sediment types (with different median sizes) are modeled (Zhu and Chang, 2000); the results show that several areas over the Yellow Sea and East China Sea region are suitable for the formation of mud deposits, and the tidal current alone can explain the accumulation of mud. This preliminary research implies that the presence of a cold eddy is not a necessary condition for the formation of mud deposits. The same authors have applied the model also to the formation of the northern Jiangsu radial tidal ridge system (Zhu and Chang, 2001). By numerical experiments to generate the flow field without the presence of the ridges, they argue that it is the flow field that determines the existence of the ridge system.

Bedform morphology has been investigated using numerical modeling methods. In the offshore areas of the Yellow River delta, there are underwater erosional gullies, 40-80 m in width, 220-400 m in length and 2.4-5.9 m in height. Such a feature has been related to secondary flows by a 3D model (Chang et al., 1999). The ratio of the secondary flow to the main flow is around 0.05; thus, if the main flow has a velocity of 0.5 m/s, then the near-bed velocity of the secondary flow is around 3 cm/s. The secondary flow provides a favorable condition for the development of the gullies.

For the characteristics of the tides and sediment distribution patterns of the Bohai Strait, a 2D horizontal model has been designed to study the long-term transport of sediment over the Bohai Strait region (Jiang et al., 2002). The output of sediment transport model indicates that in the study area net sediment transport is directed towards the northwest over the western Bohai Strait, the southwest along the Liaodong Peninsula, and the east on the southern side of the Strait. In the east of the central Bohai Strait, the net sediments transport forms an anti-clockwise eddy and it weakens toward the center of the eddy. The result of seabed accretion/erosion calculation agrees to field observations.

2.  Simulation Models

2D numerical models are now widely used to solve the various coastal engineering problems such as coastal erosion, shoreline protection, and tidal land reclamation. For instance, Wang et al. (2000) have used a model to predict the deposition rate over a reclaimed estuarine shoal in Hongzhou Bay. The calculated deposition rate by this model agrees well with the measured data. Chen (1999) constructed a 2D wave propagation model from which longshore drift can be derived. Compared with previous models that provide single-point estimation of longshore drift, this study represents a progress in that longshore transport rate can be estimated at each grid location within the surf zone. Cao et al. (2001a) derived an expression of suspended sediment concentration distribution in the surf zone adjacent to the Yellow River estuary. Further, a 2D non-uniform model on the basis of this expression was established (Cao et al., 2001b). According to this model, suspended sediment is selectively transported by currents in the coastal waters adjacent to the Yellow River estuary; fine particles can move towards the open sea, whilst relatively coarse suspended material is mostly deposited over the Yellow River delta. Finally, suspended sediment transport has been modeled for the situation of the combined waves and tides and the results are applicable to seabed erosion/accretion evaluation (Bai et al., 2000) and navigational channel maintenance and harbour management (Zhu et al., 2002).

The Changjiang River estuary is another focus of study for coastal engineers. Tidally-affected horizontal and vertical distribution patterns of suspended sediment concentrations (SSCs) in the estuary have been simulated (Cao et al., 2002; Shi and Zhou, 2000). These studies show that the vertical profile of SSCs is controlled mainly by vertical diffusion and flocculation processes. To a certain extent, these SSC models generally agree with measured data.

Hydrodynamic characteristics under the combined action of waves and tidal currents and morphodynamic feedback processes have been a topic for modeling. A comprehensive 2D numerical model, taking into account a number of factors such as estuarine flow, tidal currents, waves, sediment movement and bed topographic changes, has been developed (Ma and Li, 1999). Wu et al. (1999) have studied turbulent current structure within the boundary layer affected by both waves and currents. They found that the current structure within the boundary layer shows non-linear characteristics: wave action evidently affects the current profile, whereas currents have little influence on the structure of wave – induced currents.

For applications to harbour design and post-engineering evaluation of coastal engineering projects, Guo et al. (1998) developed a model, which is based on tidal water level change to compute cross-sectional sediment transport rates. The result was successfully employed to predict the volume of sediment deposition in the Dadong Harbour, Liaoning Province.

In terms of the application of 3D models, the Hamburg Shelf Ocean Model, HAMSOM, has been adopted and modified to simulate the suspended particle movement in the Bohai Sea (Jiang and Sun, 2000, 2001). In the simulation, the baroclinic effects of tide, wind and atmospheric pressure were considered; for the sediment aspects, settling, resuspension and diffusion processes under the combined action of tidal currents and waves were taken into account. The model output indicates that most sedimentary materials from the Yellow River are deposited within the Bohai Sea, with a small proportion being transported towards the Yellow Sea through the southern Bohai Strait. Further, the sediment movement is strongly influenced by winds.

3.  Modeling in Combination with Tracer Information

The use of tracers is an important approach to marine sediment dynamics. In this aspect, on the basis of an analysis of the mass conservation of tracers contained in the bulk sediment, Gao (2000) has suggested that sediment transport modeling can be undertaken by combining the tracer information and the flow field data. The result obtained can provide independent signals with regard to the model output of hydrodynamically-based models. Like in any existing sediment transport models, the determination of sediment diffusion coefficient, for different temporal scales, remains an important issue.



1.  Sediment Transport in Coastal Waters

In examining the empirical formulae for sediment transport rate, Huang and Xi (2000) have emphasized that it is the effective shear stress, rather than the total shear stress (including particle stress and form drag), that determines the sediment transport rate, for both suspended load and bedload. Wu and Ma (2002) have suggested that the particle size to be used in the calculation of sediment transport rate is a crucial issue, and the median grain size of moving sediment rather than that of the bed material should be used.

In the study of the critical condition for initial sediment motion, Lian and Zhao (1998) and Cao and Liu (2000) have studied the threshold of cohesive sediment under wave action on a mudflat. They found that the stability of fine-grained sediment is determined by the cohesive force and the film water between particles, which is negatively related to grain size. The Shields curve, after appropriate extension, is applicable to the evaluation of the threshold for cohesive sediment (Jiang et al., 2001).

Wang and Gao (2001) have identified an error in a widely used bedload transport formula proposed by J. Hardisty. They re-analyzed the flume data and corrected the coefficient in the formula that represents the effect of particle size. This study explains the reason of overestimate of the transport rate encountered in the past applications of the formula. This result has been applied to long-term sediment transport calculations for a tidal inlet system (Xue et al., 2002).

2.  Sedimentary Processes of Mud-Dominated Tidal Inlet Systems

Along the Zhejiang coastlines, a number of mud-dominated tidal inlets are present; these systems have received large quantities of fine-grained sediment from the Changjiang River. Resuspension in mud-dominated coastal systems in response to storm events have been investigated (Xie et al., 2001). Sanmen Bay, on the Zhejiang coast, is a large embayment with deep tidal channels at the entrance. In the channel, a sediment layer of up to 2.7 m in thickness was formed during a typhoon event in August 1994. After the storm, the water depth was recovered gradually in five months. Such a record indicates the magnitude of the resuspension that occurred during the storm. The maintenance of the entrance channel has been studied by Jiang et al. (2000). They found that in a mud-dominated system, the entrance channel is characterized by scouring on spring, taking place mainly in the channel bottom, and accretion on neaps, taking place mainly over the shoals. In this manner the channel slope becomes increasingly unstable until landslides occur. This represents a mechanism for the maintenance of equilibrium for the inlet system.

3.  Estuarine Processes

Progress has been made in the study of the estuarine systems of China, including the Yellow and Changjiang River estuaries.

Li Guang-xue and his colleagues have undertaken a systematic study on the suspended sediment movement and the related processes of the Yellow River estuary. Using the 44-year historical data sets from Lijin Hydrographic Station (some 100 km away from the river mouth), together with additional data from boundary layer measurements at Lijin and tidal cycle observations of current velocities, suspended sediment concentrations (SSCs), temperature and salinity, Li et al. (1998a) re-calculated the average water and sediment discharges of the river, which are 376.5×108 m3/year and 9.38×108 t/year, respectively. They also found that the high SSC causes stratification within the water column and, therefore, the vertical distributions of the SSC and current velocity are modified. In the river mouth area, the tides can only influence a short section of the river, 6-7 km in length, on springs. In this section, a thick layer of sediment is deposited during the flood phase of the tide, which is resuspended and transported towards the sea during the ebb. Analysis of satellite images, bathymetric survey and offshore tidal cycle measurements shows that 30%-40 % of the sediment is deposited at the river mouth, and 20% is accumulated over the delta slope areas (Li et al., 1998b). Because of the high SSC, a hypopycnal plume is formed, which carries the sediment towards the prodelta and deeper waters. Near the river mouth, a maximum deposition rate of 1.8 m per month has been identified. In the past, the river channel at the mouth has often changed its course, with frequent delta lobe abandonment. Coastal and seabed erosion at the abandoned delta lobes is severe, with the erosion rate being up to 0.6 m/a (Li et al., 2000). Another interesting feature associated with the estuary is the formation of a shear front within the river plume (Li et al., 2001). This phenomena results from the tide phase difference between the offshore and nearshore waters; the flow direction differs in these two areas, which occurs twice during a tidal cycle. It is believed that such a shear front can affect the sedimentation patterns.

Pang et al. (2001) have studied field observed hydrodynamic and sediment data from the Yellow River estuary in the flood season of 1995; they found that when the density of estuarine water exceeds 1020 kg/m3, the density current can flow continuously beneath the clear current, with relatively high velocities being found in both layers and the suspended sediment concentration decreasing upward rapidly.

Yu (2002) reviewed the geomorphologic and sedimentologic characteristics, evolution patterns and management issues of the Yellow River estuary, and highlighted the importance of investigations into the suspended sediment dynamics with high concentrations, particularly the phenomena of hyperpicnal plumes and the formation of  large scale fluid mud.

For the Changjiang River estuary, the water and sediment discharge data of 1950-1985 recorded at Datong (640 km from the river mouth) were re-analyzed by Shen et al. (2000). For this 35-year period, the average water and sediment discharges of the river were 89.6×1010 m3/a and 4.7×108 t/a, respectively. Estimates of the net fluxes of sediment and water across the two channels, North and South Channels, at the Changjiang River mouth have been proposed by Liu and Shen (2002).

The composition of suspended matter of the Chanjiang River estuary was studied using a FACcan flow cytometer, in combination with grain size analysis (Li et al., 2000). The result shows that the suspended particles with a diameter of greater than 8 μm consist mainly of organic particles and the particles of < 8 μm are often coated with organic matters. Hence, the authors believe that organic matter plays an important role in the flocculation in the Changjiang estuarine waters.

For the Pearl River estuary, based upon tidal cycle measurements and analyses of surficial sediment samples, Chen (1999), Chen et al. (1999) and Li et al. (2002) discussed the net transport regime of sediment and water over the Tonggu waters.

The formation of estuarine lutoclines has been investigated by Dong (1998) and Guan et al. (1998), using the Jiaojiang estuary as an example. This estuary is associated with a macrotidal regime and high suspended sediment concentrations. Here, the estuarine waters are well-mixed on springs, but a slat wedge is formed on neaps. During low current velocity periods of a tidal cycle, a fluid mud layer is formed, with a lutocline being present between the fluid mud and overlying water column. During neap tides, two lutoclines have been identified, which inhibits the vertical mixing.

Hangzhou Bay, the estuary of the Qiantang River, is dominated by macro-tides and covered with silty sediment. Accordingly, the sediment dynamic processes in Hangzhou Bay are characterized by alternating rapid erosion and deposit within a tidal cycle. Dai and Xu (1998) have argued that, in the Hangzhou Bay deep water channels, the solidification of fluid mud contributes mostly to the deposition. This conclusion is important to the channel maintenance. Xiong et al. (2002) discussed the siltation processes within marginal shoals in Hangzhou Bay. Xu (2001) reported the construction of a deep water harbor located in the northern Hangzhou Bay, and analyzed the influence of high suspended sediment concentrations on the stability of harbour areas.

According to the sources of estuarine fine sediment, Shen et al. (2001) have proposed a classification scheme for the turbidity maxima in China estuaries. Five types of turbidity maxima are identified. Song (2001) has proposed two indexes for evaluating the stability of estuaries; one is the intensity of erosion / deposition as an index of down-stream stability, and the other is the ratio of width to depth as an index of bed stability. Furthermore, sedimentary and morphodynamic characteristics of the Yalu River estuary, Northeast China (Cheng and Bi, 2002), and the capacity of suspended sediment transport in the Oujiang estuary, Zhejiang Province (Lu et al., 2002) were reported.

4.  Grain Size Trend Analysis

Grain size trends observed in marine environments result from sediment transport; hence, information on net sediment transport patterns may be extracted from an image of the trends. Analytical procedures based upon previous studies have been adopted and applied to the various coastal environments (e.g. Wu and Shen, 1999). Furthermore, continuous effort has been placed on the processes and mechanisms of the formation of grain size trends. Gao and Collins (2001) reviewed the progress in this direction, identifying the fundamental assumption for grain size trend analysis that the frequency of occurrence of certain types of trends is much higher in the transport direction than in any other directions. They have proposed new research topics for this research area. (1) Since the marine environment tends to be dominated by fine-grained sediments, the applicability of the trend analysis to these environments should be examined. It is important to note that fine sediments may respond differently from sands to the processes of selective transport and they are influenced by flocculation / deflocculation processes. (2) In order to solve fully the problem about the theory and applicability of the trend analysis, the relationship between sediment movement and the formation of grain size trends must be studied in terms of processes and mechanisms. In addition to field measurements, such investigations can be undertaken by flume experiments. For instance, the flow can be controlled artificially and wave motions can be simulated. Therefore, a number of hydrodynamic conditions can be provided in the flume, including tidal currents and combined tidally- and wave-induced currents. Sedimentary materials with known grain size characteristics at an initial time can be deployed in the flume; subsequent changes in the grain size parameters in response to transport can be determined by sampling and analysis. Based upon the data collected, a relationship between the grain size trends and transport processes may be established. (3) The formation of grain size trends may also be simulated using a numerical model, on the basis of equations describing changes in grain size due to abrasion, selective transport and mixing. The input data for the model include the hydrodynamic conditions (flows, waves, etc.), the spatial distribution patterns of sediments and grain size distribution curves at the initial time. During the simulation, different hydrodynamic conditions may be used such as tidal currents, waves, or combined action of uni-directional currents and waves. Such a study depends upon the use of appropriate transport equations.

In these aspects, some progress has been made for fine-grained sediment transport studies of the northern Yellow Sea (Cheng and Gao, 2000). The results obtained indicate that grain size trends over the mud deposit area are significant, and they coincide with other observations of the regional sediment transport patterns. Likewise, in dealing with areas with complex sediment distributions such as Jiaozhou Bay, Shandong Peninsula, a new procedure for grain size trend analysis has been established which involves the division of four sub-environments and the merge of trend vectors (Wang et al., 2000a). It appears that grain size trends can be produced in marine environments dominated by fine-grained materials in response to transport. The investigations into the formation of grain size trends using flume experiments and numerical modeling techniques are being undertaken, through a project funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.



1.  Laser Particle Analyzer

Laser particle size analysis techniques was introduced to mainland China in the mid-1990s. Instrument analyses in terms of inter-comparisons between different methods and pre-treatment procedures required for the new instruments have been undertaken (Cheng et al., 2001 Sun et al., 2002). On the basis of a Cilas-940L laser particle sizer data, (Cheng et al., 2001) found that mean grain size derived is coarser, and the sorting coefficient is larger, than those obtained from traditional pipette and settling methods. Hence, a transformation scheme is required to compare the temporal changes in seabed sediment size distributions. For the surficial sediments from the northern Yellow Sea, different pretreatment methods have been tested to determine the influences of organic matter and carbonate on the particle-size characteristics (Sun et al., 2002). The results show that the grain size distribution of the surficial samples pretreated by removing the organic matter and carbonate has changed to various degrees. Further studies are required in this aspect.

2.  Information on Suspended Sediment from Acoustic Measurements

An acoustic suspended sediment monitoring system has been designed and developed (Zhang and Li, 1998). This instrument covers a range of 0.1 to 5.0 kg/m3 of the SSC and can be used to obtain SSC profiles in estuarine waters. It has been tested in the Changjiang estuary and encouraging results have been obtained.

There is a potential that Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) signals (e.g. echo intensity or backscattering strength) can be used to obtain information on suspended sediment concentrations. For example, the employment of BP Nerve Network analysis can significantly improve the precision of predicted SSC (Wu et al., 2001). Two approaches to the use of ADCP signals have been explored. The first method is to establish a basic physical relationship between the backscattering strength and the SSC, and the coefficient contained within the formula is determined by calibration using in situ data (Cheng and Gao, 2001). Such a method has been tested using in-situ data from the Bohai Sea, and the results give a statistical error of less than 20% when the calculation is based upon different depths the SSC profile. The second method is to plot the echo intensity and SSC data and regression analysis is undertaken to derive an empirical formula (Wang et al., 2000b). A preliminary study was carried out in Jiaozhou Bay using an ADCP mounted on a moving vessel; the calculated suspended sediment concentration had an average relative error of 30%. These investigations indicate that there is a potential of ADCPs to measure directly and with high efficiency suspended sediment profilers.

Normally, the SSC distribution over a marine area can be determined using remotely sensed data by a calibration procedure involving in situ, real time measurements. Recently, a new technique has been developed by Li et al. (1998), which may represent an important improvement to the traditional methods. They formulated an algorithm to relate the two channels of AVHRR data to the SSC; in the calculation the calibration procedure is associated only with the regional characteristics of suspended material – no real time measurements are needed. There have been similar efforts for the derivation of SSC data by remote sensing (e.g. Fu et al., 1999).

The remote sensing techniques provide a powerful tool for suspended sediment dispersal on continental shelf areas. Analysis of satellite images shows that in the winter the suspended material can disperse from the Chinese coastline towards the open sea, and find its way to the eastern Yellow Sea coast (Sun et al., 2000). Such observations help with the explanation of the formation of mud deposits over the Yellow Sea region.


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