Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 41, Issue 4, pp 940–951 | Cite as

Massive Upland to Wetland Conversion Compensated for Historical Marsh Loss in Chesapeake Bay, USA

  • Nathalie W. Schieder
  • David C. Walters
  • Matthew L. KirwanEmail author


Sea level rise leads to coastal transgression, and the survival of ecosystems depends on their ability to migrate inland faster than they erode and submerge. We compared marsh extent between nineteenth-century maps and modern aerial photographs across the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America, and found that Chesapeake marshes have maintained their spatial extent despite relative sea level rise rates that are among the fastest in the world. In the mapped region (i.e., 25% of modern Chesapeake Bay marshland), 94 km2 of marsh was lost primarily to shoreline erosion, whereas 101 km2 of marsh was created by upland drowning. Simple projections over the entire Chesapeake region suggest that approximately 100,000 acres (400 km2) of uplands have converted to wetlands and that about a third of all present-day marsh was created by drowning of upland ecosystems since the late nineteenth century. Marsh migration rates were weakly correlated with topographic slope and the amount of development of adjacent uplands, suggesting that additional processes may also be important. Nevertheless, our results emphasize that the location of coastal ecosystems changes rapidly on century timescales and that sea level rise does not necessarily lead to overall habitat loss.


Marsh migration Chesapeake Bay Sea level rise Marsh-forest boundary 



The Dominion Foundation, NSF Coastal SEES 1426981, NSF LTER 1237733, NSF CAREER 1654374, U.S. Department of Energy Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, and the USGS Climate and Land Use Dynamics Program funded this project. We would like to thank David Wilcox, Madison Clapsaddle, VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management and VIMS Shoreline Studies programs, and the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve System for assistance with the GIS analyses. This is contribution number 3676 of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Supplementary material

12237_2017_336_MOESM1_ESM.docx (21 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 20 kb)


  1. Anisfeld, S.C., K.R. Cooper, and A.C. Kemp. 2017. Upslope development of a tidal marsh as a function of upland land use. Global Change Biology 23, 755–766.
  2. Balke, T., M. Stock, K. Jensen, T.J. Bouma, and M. Kleyer. 2016. A global analysis of the seaward salt marsh extent: The importance of tidal range. Water Resources Research 52: 3775–3786.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barbier, E.B., S.D. Hacker, C. Kennedy, E.W. Koch, A.C. Stier, and B.R. Silliman. 2011. The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services. Ecological Monographs 81: 169–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beckett, L.H., A.H. Baldwin, and M.S. Kearney. 2016. Tidal marshes across a Chesapeake Bay subestuary are not keeping up with sea-level rise. PLoS ONE 11(7): e0159753.
  5. Brinson, M.M., R.R. Christian, and L.K. Blum. 1995. Multiple states in the sea-level induced transition from terrestrial forest to estuary. Estuaries 18: 648–659.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Byrn, R.J., and G.L. Anderson. 1978. Shoreline erosion in tidewater Virginia. Special Report in Applied Marine Science and Ocean Engineering 111, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester Pt, VA, 102.
  7. Cadol, D., A. Elmore, S. Guinn, K.A.M. Engelhardt, and G. Sanders. 2016. Modeled tradeoffs between developed land protection and tidal habitat maintenance during rising sea levels. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0164875.
  8. Cahoon, D.R., P.F. Hensel, T. Spencer, D.J. Reed, and N.S. McKee. 2006. Coastal vulnerability to relative sea-level rise: Wetland elevation trends and process controls. Ecological Studies 190: 271–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chesapeake Bay Program: Tidal wetland abundance. 2015.
  10. Church, J.A., P.U. Clark, A. Cazenave, J.M. Gregory, S. Jevrejeva, A. Levermann, M.A. Merrifield, G.A. Milne, R.S. Nerem, P.D. Nunn, A.J. Payne, W.T. Pfeffer, D. Stammer, and A.S. Unnikrishnan. 2013. Sea level change. In Climate change 2013: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. T.F. Stocker, D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex, and P.M. Midgley. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Clark, J.S. 1986. Coastal forest tree populations in a changing environment, southeastern Long Island, New York. Ecological Monographs 56: 259–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Clough, J., A. Polaczyk, and M. Popato. 2016. Modeling the potential effects of sea-level rise on the coast of New York: Integrating mechanistic accretion and stochastic uncertainty. Environmental Modelling & Software 84: 349–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Collins, B.D., and A.J. Sheikh. 2005. Historical reconstruction, classification and change analysis of Puget Sound tidal marshes. Puget Sound River History Project Report to: Washington Department of Natural Resources.
  14. Corbett, D.R., J.P. Walsh, S.R. Riggs, D.V. Ames, and S.J. Culver. 2008. Shoreline change within the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system, North Carolina. 1907–2007 Centennial.
  15. Craft, C., J. Clough, J. Ehman, S. Joye, R. Park, S. Pennings, H. Guo, and M. Machmuller. 2009. Forecasting the effects of accelerated sea-level rise on tidal marsh ecosystem services. The ecological society of America. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7 (2): 73–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Crosby, S.C., D.F. Sax, M.E. Palmer, H.S. Booth, L.A. Deegan, M.D. Berness, and H.M. Leslie. 2016. Salt marsh persistence is threatened by predicted sea-level rise. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 181: 93–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Curray, J.R. 2016. Transgressions and regressions. In Papers in marine geology, ed. R.L. Miller, 175–203. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  18. D’Alpaos, A., C. Da Lio, and M. Marani. 2012. Biogeomorphology of tidal landforms: Physical and biological processes shaping the tidal landscape. Ecohydrology 5: 550–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Day, J., C. Ibáñez, F. Scarton, D. Pont, P. Hensel, J. Day, and R. Lane. 2011. Sustainability of Mediterranean deltaic and lagoon wetlands with sea-level rise: The importance of river input. Estuaries and Coasts 34: 483–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Douglas, B., and M. Crowell. 2000. Long-term shoreline position prediction and error propagation. Journal of Coastal Research 16 (1): 145–152.Google Scholar
  21. Doyle, T.W., K.W. Krauss, W.H. Conner, and A.S. From. 2010. Predicting the retreat and migration of tidal forests along the northern Gulf of Mexico under sea-level rise. Forest Ecology and Management 259: 770–777.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Engelhart, S.E., B.P. Horton, B.C. Douglas, W.R. Peltier, and T.E. Törnqvist. 2009. Spatial variability of late Holocene and 20th century sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast of the United States. Geology 37: 1115–1118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Enwright, N.M., K.T. Griffith, and M.J. Osland. 2016. Barriers to and opportunities for landward migration of coastal wetlands with sea-level rise. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14 (6): 307–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. ESRGC: Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative LiDAR Services. 2015.
  25. Ezer, T., and W.B. Corlett. 2012. Is sea level rise accelerating in the Chesapeake Bay? A demonstration of a novel new approach for analyzing sea level data. Geophysical Research Letters 39, L19605.
  26. Fagherazzi, S., G. Mariotti, P. Wiberg, and K. McGlathery. 2013. Marsh collapse does not require sea level rise. Oceanography 26: 70–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Feagin, R., M. Martinez, G. Mendoza-Gonzalez, and R. Costanza. 2010. Salt marsh zonal migration and ecosystem service change in response to global sea level rise: A case study from an urban region. Ecology and Society 15(4): 14. [online] URL:
  28. Field, C.R., C. Gjerdrum, and C.S. Elphick. 2016. Forest resistance to sea-level rise prevents landward migration to tidal marsh. Biological Conservation 201: 363–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. FitzGerald, D., M. Fenster, B. Argow, and I. Buynevich. 2008. Coastal impacts due to sea-level rise. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 36: 601–647.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ford, H., A. Garbutt, C. Ladd, J. Malarkey, and M.W. Skov. 2016. Soil stabilization linked to plant diversity and environmental context in coastal wetlands. Journal of Vegetation Science 27 (2): 259–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Friedrichs, C.T., and J.E. Perry. 2001. Tidal salt marsh morphodynamics: A synthesis. Journal of Coastal Research 27: 7–37.Google Scholar
  32. Ganju, N.K., N.J. Nidzjeko, and M.L. Kirwan. 2013. Inferring tidal wetland stability from channel sediment fluxes: Observations and a conceptual model. Journal of Geophysical Research Earth Surface 118: 2045–2058.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gedan, K.B., M.L. Kirwan, E. Wolanski, E.B. Barbier, and B.R. Silliman. 2011. The present and future role of coastal wetland vegetation in protecting shorelines: Answering recent challenges to the paradigm. Climatic Change 106 (1): 7–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Glick, P., J. Clough, and B. Nunley. 2008. Sea-level rise and coastal habitats in the Chesapeake Bay region. Technical Report. National Wildlife Federation.
  35. Hussein, A.H. 2009. Modeling of sea-level rise and deforestation in submerging coastal ultisols of Chesapeake Bay. Soil Science Society of America Journal 73 (1): 185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kearney, M.S., E.G. Russell, and J.C. Stevenson. 1988. Marsh loss in Nanticoke Estuary, Chesapeake Bay. Geographical Review 78 (2): 205–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kearney, M.S., and J.C. Stevenson. 1991. Island land loss and marsh vertical accretion rate evidence for historical sea-level changes in Chesapeake Bay. Journal of Coastal Research 7 (2): 403–415.Google Scholar
  38. Kearney, M.S., A.S. Rogers, J.R.G. Townshend, E. Rizzo, and D. Stutzer. 2002. Landsat imagery shows decline of coastal marshes in Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 83 (16): 173–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kemp, A.C., B.P. Horton, S.J. Culver, D.R. Corbett, O. van de Plassche, W.R. Gehrels, B.C. Douglas, and A.C. Parnell. 2009. Timing and magnitude of recent accelerated sea-level rise (North Carolina, United States). Geology 37: 1035–1038.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kirwan, M.L., and J.P. Megonigal. 2013. Tidal wetland stability in the face of human impacts and sea-level rise. Nature 504: 53–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kirwan, M.L., S. Temmerman, E. Skeehan, G. Guntenspergen, and S. Fagherazzi. 2016a. Overestimation of marsh vulnerability to sea level rise. Nature Climate Change 6: 253–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kirwan, M.L., G.R. Guntenspergen, A. D’Alpaos, J.T. Morris, S.M. Mudd, and S. Temmerman. 2010. Limits on the adaptability of coastal marshes to rising sea level. Geophysical Research Letters 37: L23401.
  43. Kirwan, M.L., J.L. Kirwan, and C.A. Copenheaver. 2007. Dynamics of an estuarine forest and its response to rising sea level. Journal of Coastal Research 232: 457–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kirwan, M.L., and G.R. Guntenspergen. 2012. Feedbacks between inundation, root production, and shoot growth in a rapidly submerging brackish marsh. Journal of Ecology 100: 764–770.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kirwan, M.L., D.C. Walters, W.G. Reay, and J.A. Carr. 2016b. Sea level driven marsh expansion in a coupled model of marsh erosion and migration. Geophysical Research Letters 43: 4366–4373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Krauss, K.W., A.S. From, T.W. Doyle, T.J. Doyle, and M.J. Barry. 2011. Sea-level rise and landscape change influence mangrove encroachment onto marsh in the Ten Thousand Islands region of Florida, USA. Journal of Coastal Conservation 15: 629–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Marani, M., A. D’Alpaos, S. Lanzoni, and M. Santalucia. 2011. Understanding and predicting wave erosion of marsh edges. Geophysical Research Letters 38: L21401.
  48. Mariotti, G., and S. Fagherazzi. 2010. A numerical model for the coupled long-term evolution of salt marshes and tidal flats. Journal of Geophysical Research 115, F01004.
  49. McLoughlin, S.M., P.L. Wiberg, I. Safak, and K.J. McGlathery. 2015. Rates and forcing of marsh edge erosion in a shallow coastal bay. Estuaries and Coasts 38 (2): 620–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moore, L. 2000. Shoreline mapping techniques. Journal of Coastal Research 16 (1): 111–124.Google Scholar
  51. Morris, J.T., J. Edwards, S. Crooks, and E. Reyes. 2012. Assessment of carbon sequestration potential in coastal wetlands. In Recarbonization of the biosphere, ed. R. Lal, K. Lorenz, R.F. Hüttl, B.U. Schneider, and J. von Braun, 517–531. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium. 2016.
  53. NOAA. NOAA Shoreline Website: NOAA Historical Surveys (T-Sheets). 2015.
  54. Perry, J.E., T.A.J.R. Barnard, J.G. Bradshaw, C.T. Friedrichs, K.J. Havens, P.A. Mason, W.I. Priest III, and G.M. Silberhorn. 2001. Creating tidal salt marshes in the Chesapeake Bay. Journal of Coastal Research 27: 179–191.Google Scholar
  55. Phillips, J.D. 1986. Spatial analysis of shoreline erosion, Delaware Bay, New Jersey. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 76 (1): 50–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Poulter, B., N. Christensen, and S. Qjian. 2008. Tolerance of Pinus taeda and Pinus serotine to low salinity and flooding: Implications for equilibrium vegetation dynamics. Journal of Vegetation Science 19 (1): 15–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Raabe, E.A., and R.P. Stumpf. 2015. Expansion of tidal marsh in response to sea-level rise: Gulf Coast of Florida, USA. Estuaries and Coasts 39 (1): 145–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Reed, D.J. 1995. The response of coastal marshes to sea-level rise: Survival or submergence? Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 20: 39–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Reed, D.J., D.A. Bishara, D.R. Cahoon, J. Donnelly, M. Kearney, A.S. Kolker, L.L. Leonard, R.A. Orson, and J.C. Stevenson. n.d.-bn.d.-an.d.-an.d.2008-b. Site-specific scenarios for wetlands accretion as sea level rises in the Mid-Atlantic region. Section 2.1 in. Background Documents Supporting Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.1., Titus, J.G., and Strange, E.M. (eds.). EPA 430R07004. U.S. EPA, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  60. Riggs, S.R. 2001. Shoreline erosion in North Carolina estuaries: The Soundfront Series UNC-SG_01-11. North Carolina Sea Grant, Raleigh, Pub. No. N.C., UNC-SG-01-11, 69.Google Scholar
  61. Rosen, P.S. 1980. Erosion susceptibility of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay shoreline. Marine Geology 34: 45–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Sallenger, A.H.S., K.S. Doran, and P.A. Howd. 2012. Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America. Nature Climate Change 2: 884–888.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Schepers, L., Kirwan, M., Guntenspergen, G., and Temmerman, S., 2017. Spatio-temporal development of vegetation die-off in a submerging coastal marsh. Limnology and Oceanography 62: 137–150.Google Scholar
  64. Schwimmer, R.A. 2001. Rates and processes of marsh shoreline erosion in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, U.S.A. Journal of Coastal Research 17 (3): 678–683.Google Scholar
  65. Scott, M., L. McDermott, E. Silva, and E. Watson. 2009. Digital spatial data capture of marsh extent in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 1938 and 2006. Eastern Shore GIS Cooperative at Salisbury University.Google Scholar
  66. Shalowitz, A.L. 1964. Shore and sea boundaries. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  67. Silliman, B., P. Dixon, C. Wobus, Q. He, P. Daleo, B. Hughes, J. Willis, and M. Hester. 2016. Thresholds in marsh resilience to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Scientific Reports 6: 32520.
  68. Smith, J.A.M. 2013. The role of Phragmites australis in mediating inland salt marsh migration in a Mid-Atlantic Estuary. PLoS ONE 8(5): e65091.
  69. Soil Conservation Service. 1975. Estuarine Shoreline Erosion Inventory, North Carolina. Raleigh, North Carolina: U.S. Soil Conservation Service, 71p.Google Scholar
  70. Stevenson, J.C., M.S. Kearney, and E.C. Pendleton. 1985. Sedimentation and erosion in a Chesapeake Bay brackish marsh system. Marine Geology 67: 213–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Torio, D.D., and G.L. Chmura. 2013. Assessing coastal squeeze of tidal wetlands. Journal of Coastal Research 29 (5): 1049–1061.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wasson, K., A. Woolfolk, and C. Fresquez. 2013. Ecotones as indicators of changing environmental conditions: Rapid migration of salt marsh-upland boundaries. Estuaries and Coasts 36: 654–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Watson, E.B., K.B. Raposa, J.C. Carey, C. Wigand, and R.S. Warren. 2016. Anthropocene survival of southern New England’s salt marshes, Estuaries and Coasts 40: 617–625.Google Scholar
  74. Weston, N.B. 2014. Declining sediments and rising seas: An unfortunate convergence for tidal wetlands. Estuaries and Coasts 37: 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Williams, K., K.C. Ewel, R.P. Stumpf, F.E. Putz, and T.W. Workman. 1999. Sea-level rise and coastal forest retreat on the West Coast of Florida, USA. Ecology 80: 2045–2063.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wrayf, R.D., S.P. Leatherman, and R.J. Nicholls. 1995. Historic and future land loss for upland and marsh islands in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, U.S.A. Journal of Coastal Research 11 (4): 1195–1202.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nathalie W. Schieder
    • 1
  • David C. Walters
    • 1
  • Matthew L. Kirwan
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Virginia Institute of Marine ScienceCollege of William and MaryGloucester PointUSA

Personalised recommendations