Sea-Level Rise Thresholds For Stability of Salt Marshes In a Riverine Versus a Marine Dominated Estuary

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Coastal Sciences, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory


Ocean Science and Engineering


We studied the ecological resilience of salt marshes by deriving sea level rise (SLR) thresholds in two estuaries with contrasting upland hydrological inputs in the north-central Gulf of Mexico: Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) with limited upland input, and the Pascagoula River delta drained by the Pascagoula River, the largest undammed river in the continental United States. We applied a mechanistic model to account for vegetation responses and hydrodynamics to predict salt marsh distributions under future SLR scenarios. We further investigated the potential mechanisms that contribute to salt marsh resilience to SLR.

The modeling results show that salt marshes in the riverine dominated estuary are more resilient to SLR than in the marine dominated estuary with SLR thresholds of 10.3 mm/yr and 7.2 mm/yr respectively. This difference of >3 mm/yr is mainly contributed by larger quantities of riverine-borne mineral sediments in the Pascagoula River. In both systems, sediment trapping by the above-ground vegetation appears to contribute more to marsh platform accretion than organic matter from below-ground biomass based on the medians of the accretion rates. However, below-ground biomass could contribute up to 90% of accretion in the marine dominated estuary compared to only 60% of accretion in the riverine dominated estuary. SLR thresholds of salt marshes are more sensitive to vegetation biomass in the marine dominated estuary while biomass and sediment similarly affect SLR thresholds of salt marshes in the riverine dominated estuary.

This research will likely help facilitate more informed decisions on conservation/restoration policies for these two types of systems in the near-term needed to minimize future catastrophic loss of these coastal marsh habitats once SLR thresholds are exceeded.

Publication Title

Science of the Total Environment



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