Salt marshes can outgrow sea-level rise

Written by on March 7, 2016 in Other News

A new study from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) provides a bit of hope for coastal ecosystems: salt marshes aren’t as vulnerable to sea-level rise as many other studies and assessments would have us believe. This is because typical assessment methods don’t account for processes that allow marshes to “grow vertically and migrate landward as water levels increase.”

Huntington Beach salt marsh.

Huntington Beach salt marsh.

Marshes are important habitats not just for wildlife but also for humans. In addition to being home to many commercially important fish, marshes buffer coastlines from storms, trap carbon dioxide, and improve water quality.

“Catastrophic predictions of marsh loss appear alarming,” VIMS professor and lead author Matt Kirwan explained in a news release. But they don’t include important elements that allow marshes to adapt to changing conditions.

Kirwan and his team re-analyzed 179 published records of changing marshes in North America and Europe and found that these catastrophic predictions aren’t necessarily accurate.

“Marsh soils actually build much faster as marshes become more flooded,” he said.

The marsh is able to keep up with rising sea levels because frequent flooding carries more mud into the marsh and encourages growth of many marsh plants. The researchers argue that by ignoring these factors, most assessments “greatly underestimate marsh resilience.”

By using more dynamic models, ecosystem managers will be able to more accurately assess marsh vulnerability, which will lead to more informed policies and conservation efforts.

Hawkes marsh. Photo credit: Gretchen L. Grammer, NOAA Ocean Service.

Hawkes marsh. Photo credit: Gretchen L. Grammer, NOAA Ocean Service.

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Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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