Gauging the impact of manipulative activities, such as rehabilitation or management, on wetlands requires having a notion of the unmanipulated condition as a reference. And understanding of the reference condition requires knowledge of dominant factors influencing ecosystem processes and biological communities. In this paper, we focus on natural physical factors (conditions and processes) that drive coastal wetland ecosystems of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Great Lakes coastal wetlands develop under conditions of large-lake hydrology and disturbance imposed at a hiearchy of spatial and temporal scales and contain biotic communities adapted to unstable and unpredictable conditions. Coastal wetlands are configured along a continuum of hydrogeomorphic types: open coastal wetlands, drowned river mouth and flooded delta wetlands, and protected wetlands, each developing distinct ecosystem propertics and biotic communities. Hydrogeomorphic factors associated with the lake and watershed operate at a hierarchy of scales: a) local and short-term (seiches and ice action), b) watershed / lakewide / annual (seasonal water-level change), and c) larger or year-to-year and longer (regional and/or greater than one-year). Other physical factors include the unique water quality features of each lake. The aim of this paper is to provide scientists and managers with a framework for considering regional and site-specific geomorphometry and a hierarchy of physical processes in planning management and conservation projects.