A linear relationship between wave power and erosion determines salt-marsh resilience to violent storms and hurricanes.
ABSTRACT: 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:During the 2005 hurricane season, the storm surge and wave field associated with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita eroded 527 km(2) of wetlands within the Louisiana coastal plain. Low salinity wetlands were preferentially eroded, while higher salinity wetlands remained robust and largely unchanged. Here we highlight geotechnical differences between the soil profiles of high and low salinity regimes, which are controlled by vegetation and result in differential erosion. In low salinity wetlands, a weak zone (shear strength 500-1450 Pa) was observed approximately 30 cm below the marsh surface, coinciding with the base of rooting. High salinity wetlands had no such zone (shear strengths > 4500 Pa) and contained deeper rooting. Storm waves during Hurricane Katrina produced shear stresses between 425-3600 Pa, sufficient to cause widespread erosion of the low salinity wetlands. Vegetation in low salinity marshes is subject to shallower rooting and is susceptible to erosion during large magnitude storms; these conditions may be exacerbated by low inorganic sediment content and high nutrient inputs. The dramatic difference in resiliency of fresh versus more saline marshes suggests that the introduction of freshwater to marshes as part of restoration efforts may therefore weaken existing wetlands rendering them vulnerable to hurricanes.
Project description: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:BACKGROUND: Salt marshes lie between many human communities and the coast and have been presumed to protect these communities from coastal hazards by providing important ecosystem services. However, previous characterizations of these ecosystem services have typically been based on a small number of historical studies, and the consistency and extent to which marshes provide these services has not been investigated. Here, we review the current evidence for the specific processes of wave attenuation, shoreline stabilization and floodwater attenuation to determine if and under what conditions salt marshes offer these coastal protection services. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We conducted a thorough search and synthesis of the literature with reference to these processes. Seventy-five publications met our selection criteria, and we conducted meta-analyses for publications with sufficient data available for quantitative analysis. We found that combined across all studies (n?=?7), salt marsh vegetation had a significant positive effect on wave attenuation as measured by reductions in wave height per unit distance across marsh vegetation. Salt marsh vegetation also had a significant positive effect on shoreline stabilization as measured by accretion, lateral erosion reduction, and marsh surface elevation change (n?=?30). Salt marsh characteristics that were positively correlated to both wave attenuation and shoreline stabilization were vegetation density, biomass production, and marsh size. Although we could not find studies quantitatively evaluating floodwater attenuation within salt marshes, there are several studies noting the negative effects of wetland alteration on water quantity regulation within coastal areas. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Our results show that salt marshes have value for coastal hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation. Because we do not yet fully understand the magnitude of this value, we propose that decision makers employ natural systems to maximize the benefits and ecosystem services provided by salt marshes and exercise caution when making decisions that erode these services.
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 interplay between storms and sea level rise, and between ecology and sediment transport governs the behavior of rapidly evolving coastal ecosystems such as marshes and barrier islands. Sediment deposition during hurricanes is thought to increase the resilience of salt marshes to sea level rise by increasing soil elevation and vegetation productivity. We use mesocosms to simulate burial of Spartina alterniflora during hurricane-induced overwash events of various thickness (0-60 cm), and find that adventitious root growth within the overwash sediment layer increases total biomass by up to 120%. In contrast to most previous work illustrating a simple positive relationship between burial depth and vegetation productivity, our work reveals an optimum burial depth (5-10 cm) beyond which burial leads to plant mortality. The optimum burial depth increases with flooding frequency, indicating that storm deposition ameliorates flooding stress, and that its impact on productivity will become more important under accelerated sea level rise. Our results suggest that frequent, low magnitude storm events associated with naturally migrating islands may increase the resilience of marshes to sea level rise, and in turn, slow island migration rates.We find that burial deeper than the optimum results in reduced growth or mortality of marsh vegetation, which suggests that future increases in overwash thickness associated with more intense storms and artificial heightening of dunes could lead to less resilient marshes.
Project description:More than 2 y have passed since the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, yet we still have little understanding of its ecological impacts. Examining effects of this oil spill will generate much-needed insight into how shoreline habitats and the valuable ecological services they provide (e.g., shoreline protection) are affected by and recover from large-scale disturbance. Here we report on not only rapid salt-marsh recovery (high resilience) but also permanent marsh area loss after the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Field observations, experimental manipulations, and wave-propagation modeling reveal that (i) oil coverage was primarily concentrated on the seaward edge of marshes; (ii) there were thresholds of oil coverage that were associated with severity of salt-marsh damage, with heavy oiling leading to plant mortality; (iii) oil-driven plant death on the edges of these marshes more than doubled rates of shoreline erosion, further driving marsh platform loss that is likely to be permanent; and (iv) after 18 mo, marsh grasses have largely recovered into previously oiled, noneroded areas, and the elevated shoreline retreat rates observed at oiled sites have decreased to levels at reference marsh sites. This paper highlights that heavy oil coverage on the shorelines of Louisiana marshes, already experiencing elevated retreat because of intense human activities, induced a geomorphic feedback that amplified this erosion and thereby set limits to the recovery of otherwise resilient vegetation. It thus warns of the enhanced vulnerability of already degraded marshes to heavy oil coverage and provides a clear example of how multiple human-induced stressors can interact to hasten ecosystem decline.
Project description:Marsh edge retreat by wave erosion, an ubiquitous process along estuaries, could affect vegetation dynamics in ways that differ from well-established elevation-driven interactions. Along the marshes of Delaware Bay (USA) we show that species composition from marsh edge to interior is driven by gradients in wave stress, bed elevation, and sediment deposition. At the marsh edge, large wave stress allows only short-statured species. Approximately 17m landward, decreasing wave stress and increasing deposition cause the formation of a ridge. There, high marsh fugitive and shrub species prevails. Both the marsh edge and the ridge retreat synchronously by several meters per year causing wave energy and deposition to change rapidly. Yet, the whole ecogeomorphologic profile translates landward in a dynamic equilibrium, where the low marsh replaces the high marsh ridge community and the high marsh ridge community replaces the mid-marsh grasses on the marsh plain. A plant competition model shows that the disturbances associated with sediment deposition are necessary for the high marsh species to outcompete the mid-marsh grasses during rapid transgression. Marsh retreat creates a moving framework of physical gradients and disturbances that promote the co-existence of over ten different species adjacent to the marsh edge in an otherwise species-poor landscape.
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:Ecosystem boundary retreat due to human-induced pressure is a generally observed phenomenon. However, studies that document thresholds beyond which internal resistance mechanisms are overwhelmed are uncommon. Following the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, field studies from a few sites suggested that oiling of salt marshes could lead to a biogeomorphic feedback where plant death resulted in increased marsh erosion. We tested for spatial generality of and thresholds in this effect across 103 salt marsh sites spanning ~430?kilometers of shoreline in coastal Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, using data collected as part of the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA). Our analyses revealed a threshold for oil impacts on marsh edge erosion, with higher erosion rates occurring for ~1-2 years after the spill at sites with the highest amounts of plant stem oiling (90-100%). These results provide compelling evidence showing large-scale ecosystem loss following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More broadly, these findings provide rare empirical evidence identifying a geomorphologic threshold in the resistance of an ecosystem to increasing intensity of human-induced disturbance.
Project description:Saltmarsh plants are exposed to multiple stresses including tidal inundation, salinity, wave action and sediment anoxia, which require specific root system adaptations to secure sufficient resource capture and firm anchorage in a temporary toxic environment. It is well known that many saltmarsh species develop large below-ground biomass (roots and rhizomes) but relations between fine roots, in particular, and the abiotic conditions in salt marshes are widely unknown. We studied fine root mass (<2 mm in diameter), fine root depth distribution and fine root morphology in three typical communities (Spartina anglica-dominated pioneer zone, Atriplex portulacoides-dominated lower marsh, Elytrigia atherica-dominated upper marsh) across elevational gradients in two tidal salt marshes of the German North Sea coast [a mostly sandy marsh on a barrier island (Spiekeroog), and a silty-clayey marsh on the mainland coast (Westerhever)]. Fine root mass in the 0-40 cm profile ranged between 750 and 2,500 g m-2 in all plots with maxima at both sites in the lower marsh with intermediate inundation frequency and highest plant species richness indicating an effect of biodiversity on fine root mass. Fine root mass and, even more, total fine root surface area (maximum 340 m2 m-2) were high compared to terrestrial grasslands, and were greater in the nutrient-poorer Spiekeroog marsh. Fine root density showed only a slight or no decrease toward 40 cm depth. We conclude that the standing fine root mass and morphology of these salt marshes is mainly under control of species identity and nutrient availability, but species richness is especially influential. The plants of the pioneer zone and lower marsh possess well adapted fine roots and large standing root masses despite the often water-saturated sediment.