, Volume 33, Issue 6, pp 1037–1061 | Cite as

Rates and Probable Causes of Freshwater Tidal Marsh Failure, Potomac River Estuary, Northern Virginia, USA

  • Ronald J. Litwin
  • Joseph P. Smoot
  • Milan J. Pavich
  • Erik Oberg
  • Brent Steury
  • Ben Helwig
  • Helaine W. Markewich
  • Vincent L. Santucci
  • Geoffrey Sanders


Dyke Marsh, a distal tidal marsh along the Potomac River estuary, is diminishing rapidly in areal extent. This study documents Dyke Marsh erosion rates from the early-1860s to the present during pre-mining, mining, and post-mining phases. From the late-1930s to the mid-1970s, Dyke Marsh and the adjacent shallow riverbottom were mined for gravel, resulting in a ~55 % initial loss of area. Marsh loss continued during the post-mining phase (1976–2012). Causes of post-mining loss were unknown, but were thought to include Potomac River flooding. Post-mining areal-erosion rates increased from 0.138 ha yr−1 (~0.37 ac yr−1) to 0.516 ha yr−1 (~1.67 ac yr−1), and shoreline-erosion rates increased from 0.76 m yr−1 (~2.5 ft yr−1) to 2.60 m yr−1 (~8.5 ft yr−1). Results suggest the accelerating post-mining erosion reflects a process-driven feedback loop, enabled by the marsh's severely-altered geomorphic and hydrologic baseline system; the primary post-mining degradation process is wave-induced erosion from northbound cyclonic storms. Dyke Marsh erosion rates are now comparable to, or exceed, rates for proximal coastal marshes in the same region. Persistent and accelerated erosion of marshland long after cessation of mining illustrates the long-term, and potentially devastating, effects that temporally-restricted, anthropogenic destabilization can have on estuarine marsh systems.


Dredging National Park Potomac River Wave erosion Wetland erosion Northbound cyclonic storms 



This work was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey Climate and Land Use Change Research and Development Program. We acknowledge with deep gratitude Dottie Marshall (retired), former Superintendent of George Washington Memorial Parkway, and Jon James, Acting Superintendent of GWMP, for their support for this project as well as access to NPS watercraft and associated field personnel. We thank Diane Eldridge at the USGS for 2009 imagery of Dyke Marsh. We acknowledge with gratitude Stephen Ambrose and Scott Stephens of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for resource help in acquiring data on hurricane wind events. We acknowledge Kevin Foley (USGS) and several anonymous reviewers, whose thoughtful suggestions improved this manuscript.


  1. Bennett JP (1983) Nutrient and sediment budgets for the tidal Potomac River and estuary. Dissolved loads of Rivers and Surface Water Quality/Quality relationships (Proceedings of the Hamburg Symposium). IAHS Publ 141:217–227Google Scholar
  2. Bird E (2011) Coastal geomorphology: an introduction. Wiley, New York, p 436Google Scholar
  3. Bluck BJ (1967) Sedimentation of beach gravels: examples from South Wales. J Sediment Petrol 37:128–156Google Scholar
  4. Bratton JF, Colman SM, Theiler ER, Seal RR II (2003) Birth of the modern Chesapeake Bay Estuary between 7.4 and 8.2 ka and implications for global sea-level rise. Geo-Mar Lett 22:188–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brayshaw AC (1984) Characteristics and origin of cluster bedforms in coarse-grained alluvial channels, In: Koster EH, Steel RJ(eds) Sedimentology of gravels and conglomerates. Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, Memoir 10:77–85Google Scholar
  6. Bridge JS (2003) Rivers and floodplains: forms, processes, and sedimentary record. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, p 491Google Scholar
  7. Bridgham SD, Megonigal JP, Keller JK, Bliss NB, Trettin C (2006) The carbon balance of North American wetlands. Wetlands 36(4):889–916CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bromberg KD, Bertness MD (2005) Reconstructing New England salt marsh losses using historical maps. Estuaries 28(6):823–832CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brush GS (2009) Historical land use, nitrogen, and coastal eutrophication: a Paleoecological perspective. Estuaries and Coasts 32:18–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carter V, Rybicki N (1986) Resurgence of submersed aquatic macrophytes in the tidal Potomac River, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Estuaries 9(4B):366–375Google Scholar
  11. Carter V, Rybicki NB, Anderson RT, Trombley TJ, Zynjuk GL (1985) Data on the distribution and abundance of submersed aquatic vegetation in the tidal Potomac River and transition zone of the Potomac estuary, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, 1983–1984: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 85–82, 61 pGoogle Scholar
  12. Carter V, Rybicki NB, Landwehr JM, Tutora M (1994) Role of weather and water quality in population dynamics of submersed macrophytes in the tidal Potomac River. Estuaries 17(2):417–426CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cowart L, Corbett DR, Walsh JP (2011) Shoreline change along sheltered coastlines: insights from the Neuse River Estuary, NC, USA. Remote Sensing 3:1516–1534CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Crimmins BS, Doelling Brown P, Kelso DP, Foster GD (2002) Bioaccumulation of PCBs in aquatic biota from a tidal freshwater marsh ecosystem. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 42:396–404PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Darke AK, Megonigal JP (2003) Control of sediment deposition rates in two mid-Atlantic Coast tidal freshwater wetlands. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Sci 57:255–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Day JW, Shaffer GP, Britsch LD, Reed DJ, Hawes SR, Cahoon D (2000) Pattern and process of land loss in the Mississippi Delta: a spatial and temporal analysis of wetland habitat change. Estuaries 23(4):425–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Elmore AH (2008) Remote sensing of tidal freshwater marsh elevation, channels, and vegetation structure. Masters thesis, University of Maryland, College Park, 104 pGoogle Scholar
  18. Engelhardt KAM (2006) Relating effect and response traits in submersed aquatic macrophytes. Ecol Appl 16:1808–1820PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Erwin RM, Sanders GM, Prosser DJ (2004) Changes in lagoonal marsh morphology at selected northeastern Atlantic Coast sites of significance to migratory waterbirds. Wetlands 24(4):891–903CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fagherazzi S, Gabet EJ, Furbish DJ (2004) The effect of bidirectional flow on tidal channel planforms. Earth Surf Process Landforms 29:295–309CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Froelich AJ, Johnston RH, Langer WH (1978) Preliminary report on the ancestral Potomac River deposits in Fairfax County, Virginia, and their potential hydrogeologic significance. U.S. Geol Survey Open-File Rep 78–544:1–37Google Scholar
  22. Hagy JD, Boynton WR, Keefe CW, Wood KV (2004) Hypoxia in Chesapeake Bay, 1950–2001: long-term change in relation to nutrient loading and river flow. Estuaries 27(4):634–658CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Harms JC, Southard JB, Walker RG (1982a) Fluvial deposits and facies models. In: Structures and sequences in clastic rocks, Society for Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Short Course 9, 5–1–5–26Google Scholar
  24. Harms JC, Southard JB, Walker RG (1982b) Structures and stratification. In: Structures and sequences in clastic rocks, Society for Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Short Course 9, 3–1–3–51Google Scholar
  25. Harms JC, Southard JB, Walker RG (1982c) Conglomerate, emphasizing fluvial and alluvial fan environments. In: Structures and sequences in clastic rocks, Society for Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Short Course 9, 6–1–6–21Google Scholar
  26. Hartig EK, Gornitz V, Kolker A, Mushacke F, Fallon D (2002) Anthropogenic and climate-change impacts on salt marshes of Jamaica Bay, New York City. Wetlands 22(1):71–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hensel PE, Day JW Jr, Pont D (1999) Wetland vertical accretion and soil elevation change in the Rhône River Delta, France: the importance of riverine flooding. J Coast Res 15(3):668–681Google Scholar
  28. Hilgartner WB, Brush GS (2006) Prehistoric habitat stability and post-settlement habitat change in a Chesapeake Bay freshwater tidal wetland, USA. Holocene 16:479–494CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hopfensperger KN, Engelhardt KAM (2007) Coexistence of Typha angustifolia and Impatiens capensis in a tidal freshwater marsh. Wetlands 27(3):561–569CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hopfensperger KN, Engelhardt KAM (2008) Annual species abundance in a freshwater tidal marsh- Germination and survival across an elevational gradient. Wetlands 28:521–526CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hopfensperger KN, Engelhardt KAM, Seagle SW (2007) Ecological feasibility studies in restoration decision-making. Environ Manag 39:843–852CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hopfensperger KN, Kaushal SS, Findlay SEG, Cornwell JC (2009) Influence of plant communities on denitrification in a tidal freshwater marsh of the Potomac River, United States. J Environ Qual 38:618–626PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Howes NC, FitzGerald DM, Hughes ZJ, Georgiou IY, Kulp MA, Miner MD, Smith JM, Barras JA (2010) Hurricane-induced failure of low salinity wetlands. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107(32):14014–14019PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Johnston DW (2000) The Dyke Marsh Preserve ecosystem. Va J Sci 51(4):223–272Google Scholar
  35. Keller EA, Swanson FJ (1979) Effects of large organic material on channel form and fluvial processes. Earth Surf Proc 4:361–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kennedy DM, Woods JLD (2012) The influence of coarse woody debris on gravel beach morphology. Geomorphology 159:106–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kennish MJ (2001) Coastal marsh systems in the U.S.: a review of anthropogenic impacts. J Coast Res 17(3):731–748Google Scholar
  38. Khan H, Brush GS (1994) Nutrient and metal accumulation in a freshwater tidal marsh. Estuaries 17(2):345–360CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kirwan ML, Guntenspergen GR (2010) The influence of tidal range on the stability of coastal marshland. J Geophys Res 115, F02009. doi: 10.1029/2009JF001400 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kirwan ML, Guntenspergen GR, D’Alpaos A, Morris JT, Mudd SM (2009a) Threshold sea level rise rates for wetland survival: limits to ecogeomorphic feedbacks. EOS Transactions, AGU, Fall Meeting Supplement, 90(52):EP32B-07Google Scholar
  41. Kirwan ML, Guntenspergen GR, Morris JT (2009b) Latitudinal trends in Spartina alterniflora productivity and the response of coastal marshes to global change. Glob Chang Biol 15:1982–1989CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kjar DS, Barrows EM (2004) Arthropod community heterogeneity in a Mid-Atlantic forest highly invaded by alien organisms. Banisteria 24:26–37Google Scholar
  43. Kraft JC, Yi H-I, Khalequzzaman M (1992) Geologic and human factors in the decline of the tidal salt marsh lithesome: the Delaware estuary and the Atlantic coastal zone. Sediment Geol 80:233–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Langbein WB (1963) The hydraulic geometry of a shallow estuary. Int Assoc Sci Hydro Bull 8(3):84–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Langbein WB, Leopold LB (1964) Quasi-equilibrium states in channel morphology. Am J Sci 262:782–794CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lanzoni S, Seminara G (2002) Long-term evolution and morphodynamic equilibrium of tidal channels. J Geophys Res 107:C1. doi: 10.1029/2000JC000468 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Leopold LB, Collins JN, Collins LM (1993) Hydrology of some tidal channels in estuarine marshland near San Francisco. Catena 20:469–493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Litwin RJ, Smoot JP, Pavich MJ, Markewich HW, Oberg E, Helwig B, Steury B, Santucci VL, Durika NJ, Rybicki NB, Engelhardt KM, Sanders G, Verardo S, Elmore AJ, Gilmer J (2010) Analysis of the deconstruction of Dyke Marsh, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia: progression, geologic and manmade causes, and effective restoration scenarios. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010–1269, 91 pGoogle Scholar
  49. Mangold MF, Tipton RC, Eyler SM, McCrobie TM (2004) Inventory of fish species within Dyke Marsh, Potomac River. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Report. Maryland Fishery Resources Office, Annapolis, 23 pGoogle Scholar
  50. Marani M, Lanzoni S, Zandolin D (2002) Tidal meanders. Water Resour Res 38(11):1225. doi: 10.1029/2001WR000404 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Masselink G, Kroon A, Davidson-Arnott RGD (2006) Morphodynamics of intertidal bars in wave-dominated coastal setting- a review. Geomorphology 73:33–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Moorhead KK, Brinson MM (1995) Response of wetlands to rising sea level in the lower Coastal Plain of North Carolina. Ecol Appl 5(1):261–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Myrick RM, Leopold LB (1963) Hydraulic geometry of a small tidal estuary: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 422-B, 18 pGoogle Scholar
  54. Najjar RG, Walker HA, Anderson PJ, Barron EJ, Bord RJ, Gibson JR, Kennedy VS, Knight CG, Megonigal JP, O’Connor RE, Polsky CD, Psuty NP, Richards BA, Sorenson LG, Steele EM, Swanson RS (2000) The potential impacts of climate change on the mid-Atlantic coastal region. Clim Res 14:219–233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. National Climatic Data Center (2013) NNDC climate data online. (datasetabbv = DS3505). (last accessed 11 March 2013).
  56. NOAA (2011) Historical floods: Potomac River at Little Falls. (last accessed 15 March 2013)
  57. Normandeau Associates, Inc (2009) Observations of erosion and deposition in Dyke Marsh Preserve (National Park Service), Alexandria, Virginia, 1992 to 2009, Final Report: Prepared for the National Park Service, George Washington Memorial Parkway, June 2009, Project No. 19190.016, 21 pGoogle Scholar
  58. Nyman JA, Carloss M, DeLaune KD, Patrick WH Jr (1994) Erosion rather than plant dieback as the mechanism of marsh loss in an estuarine marsh. Earth Surf Process Landforms 19:69–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Osterkamp WR, Hupp CR, Stoffel M (2012) The interaction between vegetation and erosion: new directions for research at the interface of ecology and geomorphology. Earth Surf Process Landforms 37:23–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Palermo MR, Ziegler TW (1976) Feasibility study for Dyke Marsh demonstration area: Technical Report D-76-6. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Dredged Material Research Program, Vicksburg, 63 pGoogle Scholar
  61. Pasternak GB, Brush GS (1998) Sedimentation cycles in a river-mouth tidal freshwater marsh. Estuaries, 21(3):407–415Google Scholar
  62. Pennings SC, Bertness MD (1999) Using latitudinal variation to examine effects of climate on coastal salt marsh pattern and process. Curr Topic Wetland Biogeochem 3:100–111Google Scholar
  63. Pethick JS (1980) Velocity surges and asymmetry in tidal channels. Estuar Coast Mar Sci 11:331–345CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Pettijohn FJ, Potter PE (1964) Atlas and glossary of primary sedimentary structures. Springer, New York, p 370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Phillips JD (1986) Coastal submergence and marsh fringe erosion. J Coast Res 2(4):427–436Google Scholar
  66. Scavia D, Field JC, Boesch DF, Buddemeier RW, Burkett V, Cayan DR, Fogarty M, Harwell MA, Howarth RW, Mason C, Reed DJ, Royer TC, Sallenger AH, Titus JG (2002) Climate change impacts on U.S. coastal and marine ecosystems. Estuaries 25(2):149–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Schwimmer RA (2001) Rates and processes of marsh shoreline erosion in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, U.S.A. J Coast Res 17(3):672–683Google Scholar
  68. Sear DA, Millington CE, Kitts DR, Jeffries R (2010) Logjam controls on channel:floodplain interactions in wooded catchments and their role in the formation of multi-channel patterns. Geomorphology 116:305–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Smoot JP (2009) Late Quaternary sedimentary structures of Bear Lake, Utah, and Idaho, In: Rosenbaum JG, Kaufman GS (eds) Paleoenvironments of Bear Lake, Utah and Idaho, and its catchment, Geological Society of America, Special Paper 450:49–104Google Scholar
  70. Spencer SC (2000) Population abundance and habitat requirements of the marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) at Dyke Marsh National Wildlife Preserve—An urban conservation challenge: M.S. thesis, George Mason University, Fairfax,Virginia, 49 pGoogle Scholar
  71. Stevenson JC, Rooth JE, Kearney MS, Sundberg KL (2002) The health and long-term stability of natural and restored marshes in Chesapeake Bay. In: Weinstein MP, Kreeger DA (eds) Concepts and controversies in tidal marsh ecology. Springer, Amsterdam, pp 709–735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Tiner RW (2005) Assessing cumulative loss of wetland functions in the Nanticoke River watershed using enhanced National Wetlands Inventory data. Wetlands 25(2):405–419CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. U.S. Army Coastal Engineering Research Center (1984) Shore Protection Manual, v. 1, (4th ed.): Washington, D.C., Waterways Experiment Station, Corps of Engineers, Department of the Army, 598 pGoogle Scholar
  74. Wang Y, Allen TR (2008) Estuarine shoreline change detection using Japanese ALOS PALSAR HH and JERS-1 L-HH SAR data in the Abermarle-Pamlico Sounds, North Carolina, USA. Int J Remote Sens 29(15):4429–4442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ward LG, Kearney MS, Stevenson JC (1998) Variations in sedimentary environments and accretionary patterns in estuarine marshes undergoing rapid submergence, Chesapeake Bay. Mar Geol 151:111–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Weinstein MP, Balletto JH, Teal JM, Ludwig DF (1997) Success criteria and adaptive management for a large-scale wetland restoration project. Wetl Ecol Manag 4(2):111–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Williams PB, Orr MK, Garrity NJ (2002) Hydraulic geometry: A geomorphic design tool for tidal marsh channel evolution in wetland restoration projects. Restor Ecol 10(3):577–590CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© US Government 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald J. Litwin
    • 1
  • Joseph P. Smoot
    • 1
  • Milan J. Pavich
    • 1
  • Erik Oberg
    • 2
  • Brent Steury
    • 2
  • Ben Helwig
    • 2
  • Helaine W. Markewich
    • 3
  • Vincent L. Santucci
    • 4
  • Geoffrey Sanders
    • 5
  1. 1.U.S. Geological Survey, MS926A, USGS National CenterRestonUSA
  2. 2.U.S. National Park ServiceMcLeanUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological SurveyNorcrossUSA
  4. 4.U.S. National Park ServiceWashingtonUSA
  5. 5.U.S. National Park ServiceWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations