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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Matthew L. Kirwan.

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Schieder, N.W., Walters, D.C. & Kirwan, M.L. Massive Upland to Wetland Conversion Compensated for Historical Marsh Loss in Chesapeake Bay, USA. Estuaries and Coasts 41, 940–951 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-017-0336-9

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Keywords

  • Marsh migration
  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Sea level rise
  • Marsh-forest boundary