, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 140-147

First online:

On the Relationship Between Sea Level and Spartina alterniflora Production

  • Matthew L. KirwanAffiliated withUnited States Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research CenterDepartment of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia Email author 
  • , Robert R. ChristianAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, East Carolina University
  • , Linda K. BlumAffiliated withDepartment of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia
  • , Mark M. BrinsonAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, East Carolina University

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A positive relationship between interannual sea level and plant growth is thought to stabilize many coastal landforms responding to accelerating rates of sea level rise. Numerical models of delta growth, tidal channel network evolution, and ecosystem resilience incorporate a hump-shaped relationship between inundation and plant primary production, where vegetation growth increases with sea level up to an optimum water depth or inundation frequency. In contrast, we use decade-long measurements of Spartina alterniflora biomass in seven coastal Virginia (USA) marshes to demonstrate that interannual sea level is rarely a primary determinant of vegetation growth. Although we find tepid support for a hump-shaped relationship between aboveground production and inundation when marshes of different elevation are considered, our results suggest that marshes high in the intertidal zone and low in relief are unresponsive to sea level fluctuations. We suggest existing models are unable to capture the behavior of wetlands in these portions of the landscape, and may underestimate their vulnerability to sea level rise because sea level rise will not be accompanied by enhanced plant growth and resultant sediment accumulation.


annual productivity marsh biomass wetland ecogeomorphology Virginia LTER