Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 617–625 | Cite as

Anthropocene Survival of Southern New England’s Salt Marshes

  • E. B. Watson
  • K. B. Raposa
  • J. C. Carey
  • C. Wigand
  • R. S. Warren


In southern New England, salt marshes are exceptionally vulnerable to the impacts of accelerated sea level rise. Regional rates of sea level rise have been as much as 50 % greater than the global average over past decades, a more than fourfold increase over late Holocene background values. In addition, coastal development blocks many potential marsh migration routes, and compensatory mechanisms relying on positive feedbacks between inundation and sediment deposition are insufficient to counter inundation increases in extreme low-turbidity tidal waters. Accordingly, multiple lines of evidence suggest that marsh submergence is occurring in southern New England. A combination of monitoring data, field re-surveys, radiometric dating, and analysis of peat composition have established that, beginning in the early and mid-twentieth century, the dominant low-marsh plant, Spartina alterniflora, has encroached upward in tidal marshes, and typical high-marsh plants, including Juncus gerardii and Spartina patens, have declined, providing strong evidence that vegetation changes are being driven, at least in part, by higher water levels. Additionally, aerial and satellite imagery show shoreline retreat, widening and headward extension of channels, and new and expanded interior depressions. Papers in this special section highlight changes in marsh-building processes, patterns of vegetation loss, and shifts in species composition. The final papers turn to strategies for minimizing and coping with marsh loss by managing adaptively and planning for landward marsh migration. It is hoped that this collection offers lessons that will be of use to researchers and managers on coasts where relative sea level is not yet rising as fast as in southern New England.


Climate change Sea level rise Anthropogenic impacts Wetlands Storms Spartina alterniflora Spartina patens Elevation capital Coastal adaptation Superstorm Sandy Vegetation loss Submergence 



Special section authors gratefully acknowledge Estuaries and Coasts editorial staff for helping us get the word out on such an important and timely global—and local—issue. We appreciate the cooperation of the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NBNERR), Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, and the US Environmental Protection Agency as the inter-agency partnership that organized the workshop. In addition, we thank C. Chaffee, M. Cole Ekberg, and W. Ferguson for contributing the observations that helped spawn these research activities and J. West, W. Berry, and the staff of the NBNERR for facilitating the workshop that resulted in this set of manuscripts being published as a joint work. This report, ORD Tracking Number ORD-016293, has been reviewed technically by the US EPA’s Office of Research and Development, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Atlantic Ecology Division, Narragansett, RI, and approved for publication. Approval does not signify that the contents necessarily reflect the views and policies of the US EPA.


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Copyright information

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

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. B. Watson
    • 1
    • 2
  • K. B. Raposa
    • 3
  • J. C. Carey
    • 4
  • C. Wigand
    • 1
  • R. S. Warren
    • 5
  1. 1.Atlantic Ecology Division, ORD-NHEERLUS Environmental Protection AgencyNarragansettUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research ReservePrudence IslandUSA
  4. 4.The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological LaboratoryWoods HoleUSA
  5. 5.Botany DepartmentConnecticut CollegeNew LondonUSA

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