Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 662–681 | Cite as

Wetland Loss Patterns and Inundation-Productivity Relationships Prognosticate Widespread Salt Marsh Loss for Southern New England

  • Elizabeth Burke Watson
  • Cathleen Wigand
  • Earl W. Davey
  • Holly M. Andrews
  • Joseph Bishop
  • Kenneth B. Raposa


Tidal salt marsh is a key defense against, yet is especially vulnerable to, the effects of accelerated sea level rise. To determine whether salt marshes in southern New England will be stable given increasing inundation over the coming decades, we examined current loss patterns, inundation-productivity feedbacks, and sustaining processes. A multi-decadal analysis of salt marsh aerial extent using historic imagery and maps revealed that salt marsh vegetation loss is both widespread and accelerating, with vegetation loss rates over the past four decades summing to 17.3 %. Landward retreat of the marsh edge, widening and headward expansion of tidal channel networks, loss of marsh islands, and the development and enlargement of interior depressions found on the marsh platform contributed to vegetation loss. Inundation due to sea level rise is strongly suggested as a primary driver: vegetation loss rates were significantly negatively correlated with marsh elevation (r 2 = 0.96; p = 0.0038), with marshes situated below mean high water (MHW) experiencing greater declines than marshes sitting well above MHW. Growth experiments with Spartina alterniflora, the Atlantic salt marsh ecosystem dominant, across a range of elevations and inundation regimes further established that greater inundation decreases belowground biomass production of S. alterniflora and, thus, negatively impacts organic matter accumulation. These results suggest that southern New England salt marshes are already experiencing deterioration and fragmentation in response to sea level rise and may not be stable as tidal flooding increases in the future.


Climate change Sea level rise Anthropogenic impacts Wetlands Storms Spartina alterniflora Elevation capital 



We acknowledge A. Kopacsi for construction of field mesocosms. We thank the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Barrington Land Trust, the City of Warwick, and the Nature Conservancy, among other organizations, for the access to field sites. The Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve provided access to field sites on Prudence Island, loans of field equipment and logistical, and technical support, and we recognize D. Durant and R. Weber for their contributions. Laboratory and field assistance was provided by K. Szura, C. Esch, I. Feeney, J. Bishop, S. Kelley, M. Chintala, J. Gulak, A. Hanson, R. Johnson, and A. Fischer. Access to and analyses of historic coast survey charts were provided by C. Pesch and D. McGovern. Helpful input on manuscript drafts were provided by D. Campbell, J. Kiddon, G. Cicchetti, S. Haag, and J. Carey, and graphic assistance was provided by Patricia DeCastro. This report is tracking number ORD-013026 of the US EPA’s Office of Research and Development, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Atlantic Ecology Division. Although the information in this document has been funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the agency and no official endorsement should be inferred. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (outside the USA) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Burke Watson
    • 1
    • 2
  • Cathleen Wigand
    • 1
  • Earl W. Davey
    • 1
  • Holly M. Andrews
    • 1
    • 3
  • Joseph Bishop
    • 1
  • Kenneth B. Raposa
    • 4
  1. 1.Atlantic Ecology DivisionORD-NHEERL, U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyNarragansettUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental SciencesAcademy of Natural Sciences of Drexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.Biology DepartmentUniversity of CaliforniaRiversideUSA
  4. 4.Narrangansett Bay National Estuarine Research ReservePrudence IslandUSA

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