, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 151-166

Geographical signatures of middle Atlantic estuaries: Historical layers

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Abstract

Estuaries of the middle Atlantic region can be characterized and viewed broadly against the backdrop of their geomorphologic features. While geomorphology is literally at the base of every estuary, these features do not necessarily yield regional signatures. A conceptual model, with layering in time and space, is proposed as an alternative to simplistic geomorphologic characterization. Humans have altered virtually every physical, chemical, and biological feature of middle Atlantic estuaries. A basic model premise is that middle Atlantic estuaries have a base of fundamental geomorphology features. Layered, in GIS fashion, on this base are the estuaries' components: climate, nutrients, watershed soils and vegetation, producers, and consumers. These components have been so strongly influenced by humans in time and space that the signature is anthropogenic. As a consequence, best management practices, stock assessment, and restoration have replaced concepts such as ecosystem integrity and stability. The focus of the layered model is the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and although middle Atlantic estuaries differ along climatic and latitudinal gradients, all reflect the detrimental effects of a massive human presence. The ability or inability of middle Atlantic estuaries to absorb human perturbation over the last 10,000 years gives them their signatures. From the Hudson-Raritan to the Pamlico-Albemarle estuaries, we have made some progress in curbing our impacts. Nearly everything we do affects our estuaries, and our actions are proportional to the number of humans living in the watersheds. Continued population growth on our coasts and many years of abuse may be irreversible as our estuaries lose their ability to be self-regulating, biological systems.