Critical width of tidal flats triggers marsh collapse in the absence of sea-level rise.
ABSTRACT: High rates of wave-induced erosion along salt marsh boundaries challenge the idea that marsh survival is dictated by the competition between vertical sediment accretion and relative sea-level rise. Because waves pounding marshes are often locally generated in enclosed basins, the depth and width of surrounding tidal flats have a pivoting control on marsh erosion. Here, we show the existence of a threshold width for tidal flats bordering salt marshes. Once this threshold is exceeded, irreversible marsh erosion takes place even in the absence of sea-level rise. This catastrophic collapse occurs because of the positive feedbacks among tidal flat widening by wave-induced marsh erosion, tidal flat deepening driven by wave bed shear stress, and local wind wave generation. The threshold width is determined by analyzing the 50-y evolution of 54 marsh basins along the US Atlantic Coast. The presence of a critical basin width is predicted by a dynamic model that accounts for both horizontal marsh migration and vertical adjustment of marshes and tidal flats. Variability in sediment supply, rather than in relative sea-level rise or wind regime, explains the different critical width, and hence erosion vulnerability, found at different sites. We conclude that sediment starvation of coastlines produced by river dredging and damming is a major anthropogenic driver of marsh loss at the study sites and generates effects at least comparable to the accelerating sea-level rise due to global warming.
Project description:Tidal marshes maintain elevation relative to sea level through accumulation of mineral and organic matter, yet this dynamic accumulation feedback mechanism has not been modeled widely in the context of accelerated sea-level rise. Uncertainties exist about tidal marsh resiliency to accelerated sea-level rise, reduced sediment supply, reduced plant productivity under increased inundation, and limited upland habitat for marsh migration. We examined marsh resiliency under these uncertainties using the Marsh Equilibrium Model, a mechanistic, elevation-based soil cohort model, using a rich data set of plant productivity and physical properties from sites across the estuarine salinity gradient. Four tidal marshes were chosen along this gradient: two islands and two with adjacent uplands. Varying century sea-level rise (52, 100, 165, 180 cm) and suspended sediment concentrations (100%, 50%, and 25% of current concentrations), we simulated marsh accretion across vegetated elevations for 100 years, applying the results to high spatial resolution digital elevation models to quantify potential changes in marsh distributions. At low rates of sea-level rise and mid-high sediment concentrations, all marshes maintained vegetated elevations indicative of mid/high marsh habitat. With century sea-level rise at 100 and 165 cm, marshes shifted to low marsh elevations; mid/high marsh elevations were found only in former uplands. At the highest century sea-level rise and lowest sediment concentrations, the island marshes became dominated by mudflat elevations. Under the same sediment concentrations, low salinity brackish marshes containing highly productive vegetation had slower elevation loss compared to more saline sites with lower productivity. A similar trend was documented when comparing against a marsh accretion model that did not model vegetation feedbacks. Elevation predictions using the Marsh Equilibrium Model highlight the importance of including vegetation responses to sea-level rise. These results also emphasize the importance of adjacent uplands for long-term marsh survival and incorporating such areas in conservation planning efforts.
Project description:Salt marsh losses have been documented worldwide because of land use change, wave erosion, and sea-level rise. It is still unclear how resistant salt marshes are to extreme storms and whether they can survive multiple events without collapsing. Based on a large dataset of salt marsh lateral erosion rates collected around the world, here, we determine the general response of salt marsh boundaries to wave action under normal and extreme weather conditions. As wave energy increases, salt marsh response to wind waves remains linear, and there is not a critical threshold in wave energy above which salt marsh erosion drastically accelerates. We apply our general formulation for salt marsh erosion to historical wave climates at eight salt marsh locations affected by hurricanes in the United States. Based on the analysis of two decades of data, we find that violent storms and hurricanes contribute less than 1% to long-term salt marsh erosion rates. In contrast, moderate storms with a return period of 2.5 mo are those causing the most salt marsh deterioration. Therefore, salt marshes seem more susceptible to variations in mean wave energy rather than changes in the extremes. The intrinsic resistance of salt marshes to violent storms and their predictable erosion rates during moderate events should be taken into account by coastal managers in restoration projects and risk management plans.
Project description:This study challenges the paradigm that salt marsh plants prevent lateral wave-induced erosion along wetland edges by binding soil with live roots and clarifies the role of vegetation in protecting the coast. In both laboratory flume studies and controlled field experiments, we show that common salt marsh plants do not significantly mitigate the total amount of erosion along a wetland edge. We found that the soil type is the primary variable that influences the lateral erosion rate and although plants do not directly reduce wetland edge erosion, they may do so indirectly via modification of soil parameters. We conclude that coastal vegetation is best-suited to modify and control sedimentary dynamics in response to gradual phenomena like sea-level rise or tidal forces, but is less well-suited to resist punctuated disturbances at the seaward margin of salt marshes, specifically breaking waves.
Project description:The evolution of tidal marsh platforms and interwoven channel networks cannot be addressed without treating the two-way interactions that link biological and physical processes. We have developed a 3D model of tidal marsh accretion and channel network development that couples physical sediment transport processes with vegetation biomass productivity. Tidal flow tends to cause erosion, whereas vegetation biomass, a function of bed surface depth below high tide, influences the rate of sediment deposition and slope-driven transport processes such as creek bank slumping. With a steady, moderate rise in sea level, the model builds a marsh platform and channel network with accretion rates everywhere equal to the rate of sea-level rise, meaning water depths and biological productivity remain temporally constant. An increase in the rate of sea-level rise, or a reduction in sediment supply, causes marsh-surface depths, biomass productivity, and deposition rates to increase while simultaneously causing the channel network to expand. Vegetation on the marsh platform can promote a metastable equilibrium where the platform maintains elevation relative to a rapidly rising sea level, although disturbance to vegetation could cause irreversible loss of marsh habitat.
Project description:In mid-winter 2018, an unprecedented sediment deposition event occurred throughout portions of the Great Marsh in Massachusetts. Evaluation of this event in distinct marsh areas spanning three towns (Essex, Ipswich, and Newbury) revealed deposition covering 29.2 hectares with an average thickness of 30.1±2.1 mm measured shortly after deposition. While sediment deposition helps marshes survive sea level rise by building elevation, effects of such a large-scale deposition on New England marshes are unknown. This natural event provided an opportunity to study effects of large-scale sediment addition on plant cover and soil chemistry, with implications for marsh resilience. Sediment thickness did not differ significantly between winter and summer, indicating sediment is not eroding or compacting. The deposited sediment at each site had similar characteristics to that of the adjacent mudflat (e.g., texture, bivalve shells), suggesting that deposited materials resulted from ice rafting from adjacent flats, a natural phenomenon noted by other authors. Vegetative cover was significantly lower in plots with rafted sediment (75.6±2.3%) than sediment-free controls (93.1±1.6%) after one growing season. When sorted by sediment thickness categories, the low thickness level (1-19 mm) had significantly greater percent cover than medium (20-39 mm) and high (40-90 mm) categories. Given that sediment accretion in the Great Marsh was found to average 2.7 mm per year, the sediment thickness documented herein represents ~11 years of sediment accretion with only a 25% reduction in plant cover, suggesting this natural sediment event will likely increase long-term marsh resilience to sea level rise.
Project description:Salt marshes are valued for their ecosystem services, and their vulnerability is typically assessed through biotic and abiotic measurements at individual points on the landscape. However, lateral erosion can lead to rapid marsh loss as marshes build vertically. Marsh sediment budgets represent a spatially integrated measure of competing constructive and destructive forces: a sediment surplus may result in vertical growth and/or lateral expansion, while a sediment deficit may result in drowning and/or lateral contraction. Here we show that sediment budgets of eight microtidal marsh complexes consistently scale with areal unvegetated/vegetated marsh ratios (UVVR) suggesting these metrics are broadly applicable indicators of microtidal marsh vulnerability. All sites are exhibiting a sediment deficit, with half the sites having projected lifespans of less than 350 years at current rates of sea-level rise and sediment availability. These results demonstrate that open-water conversion and sediment deficits are holistic and sensitive indicators of salt marsh vulnerability.
Project description:The implementation and monitoring of management strategies is integral to protect coastal marshes from increased inundation and submergence under sea-level rise. Sediment addition is one such strategy in which sediment is added to marshes to raise relative elevations, decrease tidal inundation, and enhance ecosystem processes. This study looked at the plant and invertebrate community responses over 12 months following a sediment addition project on a salt marsh located in an urbanized estuary in southern California, USA. This salt marsh is experiencing local subsidence, is sediment-limited from landscape modifications, has resident protected species, and is at-risk of submergence from sea-level rise. Abiotic measurements, invertebrate cores, and plant parameters were analyzed before and after sediment application in a before-after-control-impact (BACI) design. Immediately following the sediment application, plant cover and invertebrate abundance decreased significantly, with smothering of existing vegetation communities without regrowth, presumably creating resulting harsh abiotic conditions. At six months after the sediment application treatment, Salicornia bigelovii minimally colonized the sediment application area, and Spartina foliosa spread vegetatively from the edges of the marsh; however, at 12 months following sediment application overall plant recovery was still minimal. Community composition of infaunal invertebrates shifted from a dominance of marsh-associated groups like oligochaetes and polychaetes to more terrestrial and more mobile dispersers like insect larvae. In contrast to other studies, such as those with high organic deposition, that showed vegetation and invertebrate community recovery within one year of sediment application, our results indicated a much slower recovery following a sediment addition of 32 cm which resulted in a supratidal elevation with an average of 1.62 m (NAVD88) at our sampling locations. Our results indicate that the site did not recover after one year and that recovery may take longer which illustrates the importance of long-term monitoring to fully understand restoration trajectories and inform adaptive management. Testing and monitoring sea-level rise adaptation strategies like sediment addition for salt marshes is important to prevent the loss of important coastal ecosystems.
Project description:Landscape-level shifts in plant species distribution and abundance can fundamentally change the ecology of an ecosystem. Such shifts are occurring within mangrove-marsh ecotones, where over the last few decades, relatively mild winters have led to mangrove expansion into areas previously occupied by salt marsh plants. On the Texas (USA) coast of the western Gulf of Mexico, most cases of mangrove expansion have been documented within specific bays or watersheds. Based on this body of relatively small-scale work and broader global patterns of mangrove expansion, we hypothesized that there has been a recent regional-level displacement of salt marshes by mangroves. We classified Landsat-5 Thematic Mapper images using artificial neural networks to quantify black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) expansion and salt marsh (Spartina alterniflora and other grass and forb species) loss over 20 years across the entire Texas coast. Between 1990 and 2010, mangrove area grew by 16.1 km(2), a 74% increase. Concurrently, salt marsh area decreased by 77.8 km(2), a 24% net loss. Only 6% of that loss was attributable to mangrove expansion; most salt marsh was lost due to conversion to tidal flats or water, likely a result of relative sea level rise. Our research confirmed that mangroves are expanding and, in some instances, displacing salt marshes at certain locations. However, this shift is not widespread when analyzed at a larger, regional level. Rather, local, relative sea level rise was indirectly implicated as another important driver causing regional-level salt marsh loss. Climate change is expected to accelerate both sea level rise and mangrove expansion; these mechanisms are likely to interact synergistically and contribute to salt marsh loss.
Project description:Tidal marshes will be threatened by increasing rates of sea-level rise (SLR) over the next century. Managers seek guidance on whether existing and restored marshes will be resilient under a range of potential future conditions, and on prioritizing marsh restoration and conservation activities.Building upon established models, we developed a hybrid approach that involves a mechanistic treatment of marsh accretion dynamics and incorporates spatial variation at a scale relevant for conservation and restoration decision-making. We applied this model to San Francisco Bay, using best-available elevation data and estimates of sediment supply and organic matter accumulation developed for 15 Bay subregions. Accretion models were run over 100 years for 70 combinations of starting elevation, mineral sediment, organic matter, and SLR assumptions. Results were applied spatially to evaluate eight Bay-wide climate change scenarios.Model results indicated that under a high rate of SLR (1.65 m/century), short-term restoration of diked subtidal baylands to mid marsh elevations (-0.2 m MHHW) could be achieved over the next century with sediment concentrations greater than 200 mg/L. However, suspended sediment concentrations greater than 300 mg/L would be required for 100-year mid marsh sustainability (i.e., no elevation loss). Organic matter accumulation had minimal impacts on this threshold. Bay-wide projections of marsh habitat area varied substantially, depending primarily on SLR and sediment assumptions. Across all scenarios, however, the model projected a shift in the mix of intertidal habitats, with a loss of high marsh and gains in low marsh and mudflats.Results suggest a bleak prognosis for long-term natural tidal marsh sustainability under a high-SLR scenario. To minimize marsh loss, we recommend conserving adjacent uplands for marsh migration, redistributing dredged sediment to raise elevations, and concentrating restoration efforts in sediment-rich areas. To assist land managers, we developed a web-based decision support tool (www.prbo.org/sfbayslr).
Project description:Short-term bed-level dynamics has been identified as one of the main factors affecting biota establishment or retreat on tidal flats. However, due to a lack of proper instruments and intensive labour involved, the pattern and drivers of daily bed-level dynamics are largely unexplored in a spatiotemporal context. In this study, 12 newly-developed automatic bed-level sensors were deployed for nearly 15 months on two tidal flats with contrasting wave exposure, proving an unique dataset of daily bed-level changes and hydrodynamic forcing. By analysing the data, we show that (1) a general steepening trend exists on both tidal flats, even with contrasting wave exposure and different bed sediment grain size; (2) daily morphodynamics level increases towards the sea; (3) tidal forcing sets the general morphological evolution pattern at both sites; (4) wave forcing induces short-term bed-level fluctuations at the wave-exposed site, but similar effect is not seen at the sheltered site with smaller waves; (5) storms provoke aggravated erosion, but the impact is conditioned by tidal levels. This study provides insights in the pattern and drivers of daily intertidal bed-level dynamics, thereby setting a template for future high-resolution field monitoring programmes and inviting in-depth morphodynamic modelling for improved understanding and predictive capability.