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Coastal mapping: Humber Estuary

Updated Tuesday, 6th November 2007

How has the Humber Estuary changed over the centuries? For a richer experience, explore these changes with our coastal mapping interactive.

This page was published over 15 years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

The Humber Estuary is a substantial funnel shaped estuarine, dominated by marine derived sediment, and a long thin spit with a south west orientation (Spurn Head). It is a macro tidal estuary with a large tidal range. The tidal range is comparable with that of the River Severn.

This spit has undergone many periods of erosion and accretion over time, and has changed orientation slowly. The spit has been breached several times by waves overtopping the crest of the peninsula. Washover helps build the peninsula on the western side. Spurn Head is considered to have been formed by longshore drift of sediment washed out of the clay cliffs.

The marine sediment has formed large tidal flats, and sand bars. The estuary is fed by sediment from the adjacent Holderness coast as well as fluvial sediment. The tidally dominated areas create mudflats, whereas low wave energies create the sand flats in the lee of Spurn Head.

The Humber Estuary is a major shipping route, with large ports such as Grimsby and Immingham sitting on the river banks. Here, there are several jetties, docks and lock gates illustrating the importance of trade within this area.

Humber 1828

This is an accretionary system comprising highly mobile sands and mobile sand sheets. The area consists of a hooked spit and several large shoals both in the harbour entrance and in the harbour channel.

In the lee of the spit, is a substantial tidal sand flat (Trinity Sands), representing quiescent sediment depositional area, created by low energy wave conditions.

Washover from the coastal side of the spit is an important process, which causes breaching at high water or on a spring tide. The strong ebb tide also causes ripples offshore.

Several sand shoals exist in the entrance. These are mobile banks which undergo various stages of growth and erosion.

Sand Haile flats form the southern part of the entrance. This is an extensive area of exposed sands. The entrance consists of a deep shipping channel, bounded by mobile bars.

The exchange of sediment between the bars is an important process occurring within the harbour entrance. The mobile sands add to the complexity of this estuarine system.

An 1828 Humber chart

1828 Source chart

Humber, 1877

The entrance of the Harbour is depicted by the dominance of Spurn Head - the narrow spit which extends in a south west direction into the Harbour Channel. This is a narrow feature but has an important strategic position along this stretch of the coastline.

This spit has been fed by sediment moving southwards along the adjacent shore, eroded from the soft glacial cliffs. In the lee of Spurn is a sand flat (Trinity Sand) which has changed extensively since the last chart. North Channel cuts into this sand flat.

The Harbour mouth is also dominated by a series of deep channels and sand bars. These are complicated and are controlled by the movement of the sand bars, and also the dredging.

The volume of water exiting this estuary and the amount of sediment being transported within the system add to the complexity of the area.

detail from map of Humber
1877 Source chart


Spurn Head plays an important role in the configuration of the harbour entrance, along with the deep water channels and sand bars.

The deep water channels represent the main shipping channels which lead to the busy ports of Immingham and Grimsby. To keep these channels open, the area has been dredged.

The sands and the channels of the Humber are extremely mobile, thus ensuring that the bathymetry is complex. This mobility within the system illustrates the amount of sediment moving around the estuary, and also highlights the proliferation of estuarine, fluvial and marine processes within this section of the coastline.

detail from map of Humber
1900 Source chart


The area of Humber depicted in this chart illustrates the complexity of the harbour entrance. The main channel consists of a series of bars dissecting the shipping channels. The southern channel is the main shipping lane, and the northern channel (Sunk dredged channel) is a dredged shipping channel. This is for deep draughted ships.

Dredging is constantly occurring within this channel because of the importance of the ports within this area, and the constant mobility of the sediment within the system.

The sand bars within the system are extensive and mobile. Spurn Head is narrower, although Trinity Sands are still as extensive as they have been previously. The spit is in danger of being breached.

The configuration of the harbour system is largely controlled by anthropogenic interference, shoreline defences, ports, locks and jetties, and is fed by sediment originating from both river transport and the coastal sediment.

You can also inspect all the Humber maps on a single page.


This feature has been made possible by a partnership between The Crown Estate and The Open University. The Crown Estate manages property in the UK within the Marine, Urban and Rural Estates and all their revenue surplus is returned to the Treasury. The Marine Stewardship Fund, which supports this project, contributes to the good management and stewardship of the marine estate. The Open University is committed to making education available to all.

With thanks to the National Maritime Museum. Find out more about the National Maritime Museum's collections.

We would like to thank Sefton Coastal Partnership for access to and use of some of its resources .

We would also like to thank the Hydrographic Office for permission to use their charts and to ABP Humber for additional permission to use the 2001 Humber chart.


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