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The environmental consequences of climatic change on British salt marsh vegetation

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The present relationship between sea level and the zonation of salt marsh vegetation is discussed in terms of the salt marshes of the Essex and Kent coasts. These marshes are already decreasing in area as a result of a number of different environmental pressures, including the sinking of the land relative to the sea, at a rate of about 3 mm per year, the result of isostatic adjustment following the last glaciation. Because most British salt marshes are backed by a sea wall the marshes can not respond to rising sea levels by migrating landwards, thus increasing the impact of sea level change. In view of this and of the importance of salt marshes as protection for the sea walls themselves, a conceptual model has been developed, of the likely impact of climate change and the resulting sea level rise, on British salt marsh vegetation. The basis of this approach is the assumption that a rise in sea level will cause the drowning of certain existing vegetation zones and their subsequent replacement by new vegetation types appropriate to the changed sea level. Estimates have been made of the likely impact of rises in sea level of 0.5, 1.0 and 1.5 metres on the five major vegetation zones identified in East Anglia. The validity of this approach is discussed, together with the likely additive effect of present degenerative changes observed in the Essex salt marshes. It is estimated that over the next 60 years a sea level rise of only 0.5 m, when existing degeneration is taken to account, would cause a loss of over 40% of the present area of salt marsh in Essex and probably also in Kent. These losses would mainly effect the higher salt marsh vegetation zones which would be replaced by pioneer communities. These predictions would be greatly magnified by larger rises in sea level. The wider ecological implication of these changes and some possible remedial measures are considered. These predictions are discussed in relation to the situation in the rest of East Anglia and for Britain as a whole.

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Boorman, L.A. The environmental consequences of climatic change on British salt marsh vegetation. Wetlands Ecol Manage 2, 11–21 (1992).

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