AbstractA 3D unstructured-grid numerical model of the Ems Estuary is presented. The simulated hydrodynamics are compared against tidal gauge data and observations from research cruises. A comparison with an idealized test reveals the capability of the model to reproduce the secondary circulation patterns known from theoretical results. The simulations prove to be accurate and realistic, confirming and extending findings from earlier observations and modeling studies. The basic characteristics of dominant physical processes in the estuary such as tidal amplification, tidal damping, overtide generation, baroclinicity and internal mixing asymmetry are quantified. The model demonstrates an overall dominance of the flood currents in most of the studied area. However, the hypsometric control in the vicinity of Dollart Bay reverses this asymmetry, with the ebb currents stronger than the flood ones. Small-scale bathymetric characteristics and baroclinicity result in a very complex interplay between dominant physical mechanisms in different parts of the tidal channels and over the tidal flats. Residual flow reveals a clear overturning circulation in some parts of the estuary which is related to a mixing asymmetry between flood and ebb currents. We demonstrate that while areas close to the tidal river exhibit overall similarity with density controlled estuarine conditions, in large areas of the outer estuary barotropic forcing and complex bathymetry together with the density distribution affect substantially the horizontal circulation.