Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
Phone number
+31 (0)113 57 7462
Senior Scientist
  • Coastal hydrodynamics
  • Transport of suspended sediment
  • Regional sea level variability
  • Internal waves

Dr. Theo Gerkema

Senior Scientist

Wind makes the Wadden Sea dynamic

Physical oceanographer Theo Gerkema investigates the sea level in the Wadden Sea and the Zeeland delta. ‘Global mean sea level is measured to an accuracy of a few millimetres with the help of satellites. Climate change and sea level rise are clearly measurable in those data. Nevertheless, that does not say a lot about regional values; considerable differences exist across the world. Furthermore, the annual mean sea level along the Dutch coast can vary by ten or even twenty centimetres from year to year. That is mainly due to the mean direction and strength of the wind in that year. Was the prevailing wind more easterly than normal? Then the mean sea level on the Dutch coast can easily be ten centimetres lower!’

Long-term measurements

‘Those variations become relatively less important when we take a very long time series. The sea level along our coast has been accurately measured for more than a century. Over that period, trends can therefore be recognized. However, in relation to climate change and sea level rise, we also want to know what has happened to the sea level over the past ten years, for example. We need to be able to account for the effects of the wind to determine that. So that is an important part of our research too.'

Sand, silt and nutrients

‘Just how large an influence the wind has on water movements in the Wadden Sea is something we have only recently become aware of. These water movements are important for almost everything that happens in the Wadden Sea. What comes through the inlets between the islands twice per day is not just a lot of water but also sand, sediment and nutrients. These nutrients, in turn, ensure that the algae can grow, as a result of which shellfish, fish and birds can find food.’

‘Freshwater also regularly comes in from the sluices in the Afsluitdijk, the dyke that separates the IJsselmeer lake from the Wadden Sea. How that freshwater subsequently spreads through the channels and over the mudflats strongly depends on the wind. This way, the variable wind leaves a strong mark on the Wadden Sea and makes its dynamics very much event-driven.’

Read more +

Introductory textbook on tides

Theo Gerkema, An introduction to tides. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Contains the following chapters: 1. Introductory Concepts; 2. Tidal Forcing; 3. Celestial Motions; 4. Tidal Constituents and the Harmonic Method; 5. Tidal Wave Propagation; 6. Tides in Coastal Seas and Basins; 7. Internal Tides.

ENW LOCO-EX project (The Wadden Sea as an event-driven system: long-term consequences for exchange), jointly with TU/e and IOW Warnemünde.

The Wadden Sea is the largest backbarrier tidal system in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site because of its ecological significance. It is under increased pressure due to human activities and climate change. A key governing component of the overall system is the exchange of water, salt, nutrients, sediment, larvae, etc. between basins and with the North Sea. Recently, we have shown that the nature of this exchange is very different than previously thought due to the dominant role of the wind, which imposes an enormous variability, with storms having a disproportionately high impact. This view of the Wadden Sea as an event-driven system means that understanding and quantifying the exchanges and transports requires the inclusion of a wide range of forcing conditions over a long time span.

In this project, we investigate the exchange between the tidal basins and the North Sea for a 35-year period in the Dutch Wadden Sea. For this, we will develop and apply new tools to quantify the exchange, the flushing characteristics of the basins, and the connectivity in the system. We will analyse results of new long-term numerical simulations of the hydrodynamics to link the variability in the forcing to the exchange and transport in the region. Finally, the results will allow us to estimate how the exchange would be altered under climate change. The results of this project will help to inform protection plans and policy decisions for the region.

Regional sea level variability

Annual mean sea level varies in the order of a decimeter from year to year. This inter-annual variability is also in large part due to the prevailing wind climate in different years. Regional sea level variability forms a core topic at the department of Estuarine & Delta Systems. Therefore I am also part of the NIOZ Sea Level Centre of expertise.

Education & positions

I am a member of the department of Estuarine & Delta Systems (NIOZ-Yerseke) since 2016. Before I worked as senior researcher on coastal dynamics at NIOZ-Texel, after having been postdoctoral researcher at NIOZ, LEGI Grenoble (France) and Utrecht University. Until 2010, I worked for many years on internal tides, solitons, and the effects of Earth rotation.

Linked news

Wednesday 31 January 2024
Cold-water coral traps itself on mountains in the deep sea
Corals searching for food in the cold and dark waters of the deep sea are building higher and higher mountains to get closer to the source of their food. But in doing so, they may find themselves trapped when the climate changes. That is shown in the…
Thursday 26 January 2023
Dossier: Dijkdoorbraken en natuurlijke kustverdediging
Op 1 februari 2023 herdenkt Nederland de Watersnoodramp van 70 jaar geleden. Hoewel ons laaggelegen land sindsdien goed beschermd is geweest, stellen de gevolgen van klimaatverandering, zoals zeespiegelstijging en weersextremen Nederland voor nieuwe…
Tuesday 28 August 2018
Grootschalig onderzoek slib Eems-Dollard | Large-scale study water turbidity Ems-Dollard estuary
[English below] NIOZ doet mee aan grootschalig onderzoek naar werking slib in Eems-estuarium. Om beter te begrijpen hoe het slib zich in het dynamische overgangsgebied tussen rivier en zee (zoet en zout) gedraagt, start dinsdag 28 augustus 2018 een…

Linked blogs

Wednesday 13 April 2022
Podcast Van Delta tot Diepzee aflevering 21_De zee als onrustige zandbak. Met fysisch oceanograaf Theo Gerkema
De zee voor onze kust is een zandbak, die voortdurend onderloopt met heel onrustig water. Het zand uit de zandbak is in voortdurende staat van beroering: door het tij natuurlijk, het komen en gaan van de vloedgolf, maar vooral ook door de wind. De…

NIOZ publications

Linked projects

Theo Gerkema
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research
Project duration
1 Jan 2011 - 30 Sep 2015
MUDMOTOR Sediment for salt marshes
Theo Gerkema
Project duration
1 May 2015 - 31 Dec 2018