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Relationships between ecosystem properties and sea-level rise vulnerability of tidal wetlands of the U.S. Mid-Atlantic


Tidal wetlands in the Mid-Atlantic, USA, are experiencing high rates of relative sea level rise, and it is unclear whether they will be resilient in the face of future flooding increases. In a previous study, we found 80% of our study areas in tidal freshwater and salt marshes in the Delaware Estuary and Barnegat Bay had elevation change rates lower than the 19-year increase in mean sea level. Here, we examine relationships between marsh elevation dynamics and abiotic and biotic parameters in order to assess their utility as indicators of vulnerability to relative sea level rise. We further apply a range of marsh vulnerability indicators including elevation change rates to evaluate their ability to corroborate marsh habitat change over the last 30 years. Of the field measurements, soil bulk density and belowground plant biomass were among the strongest predictors of elevation change and accretion dynamics across all marsh types and settings. Both tidal freshwater and salt marshes tended to have higher rates of elevation increase and surface accretion in areas where soil bulk density and live belowground biomass were higher. Nine of the ten marshes experienced a net loss of area from the 1970s to 2015 ranging from 0.05 to 14%. Although tidal freshwater marshes were low in elevation and experienced variable elevation change rates, marsh area loss was low. Conversely, salt marshes closest to the coast and perched high in the tidal frame with a higher degree of human modification tended to experience the greatest marsh loss, which incorporated anthropogenic impacts and edge erosion. Thus, our regional assessment points to the need for a comprehensive understanding of factors that influence marsh resilience including human modifications and geomorphic settings.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and analyzed for this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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We thank Melanie Mills, Mike Archer, Linda Zaoudeh, Viktoria Unger, Paul Kiry, Paula Zelanko, Tracey Curran, Elisabeth Powell, Lin Perez, and Jessie Buckner for their contributions to the field and laboratory efforts, without whom this article would not be possible, and Metthea Yepsen for the helpful discussions. We also thank the US Fish and Wildlife Service, particularly John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for the access to research sites and logistical support.


This work was supported by the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium (NJSGC) with funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Sea Grant, U.S. Department of Commerce, under NOAA grant number #NA14OAR4170085, and Pennsylvania Sea Grant (PSG) via the Pennsylvania State University sub-award #4721-ANS-NOAA-0061 with funds from NOAA under #NA10OAR4170061, and the US EPA Region 2 under a Wetlands Program Development Grant #CD97207600, and NSF Coastal SEES 1325466. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US EPA, NJSGC, PSG, or the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the funder played no role in the study design and data interpretation, nor in the decision to submit the article for publication.

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Elsey-Quirk, T., Watson, E.B., Raper, K. et al. Relationships between ecosystem properties and sea-level rise vulnerability of tidal wetlands of the U.S. Mid-Atlantic. Environ Monit Assess 194, 292 (2022).

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  • Salt marsh
  • Tidal freshwater marsh
  • Elevation
  • Vegetation
  • Delaware Estuary
  • Barnegat Bay