Evolution of Tidal Marsh Distribution under Accelerating Sea Level Rise


Tidal marshes are important ecological systems that are responding to sea level rise-driven changes in tidal regimes. Human development along the coastline creates barriers to marsh migration, moderating tidal marsh distributions. This study shows that in the Chesapeake Bay, USA an estuarine system with geographic and development variability, overall estuarine tidal marshes are projected to decline by approximately half over the next century. Tidal freshwater and oligohaline habitats, which are found in the upper reaches of the estuary and are typically backed by high elevation shorelines are particularly vulnerable. Due to their geological setting, losses of large extents of tidal freshwater habitat seem inevitable under sea level rise. However, in the meso/poly/euhaline zones that (in passive margin estuaries) are typically low relief areas, tidal marshes are capable of undergoing expansion. These areas should be prime management targets to maximize future tidal marsh extent. Redirecting new development to areas above 3 m in elevation and actively removing impervious surfaces as they become tidally inundated results in the maximum sustainability of natural coastal habitats. Under increasing sea levels and flooding, the future of tidal marshes will rely heavily on the policy decisions made, and the balance of human and natural landscapes in the consideration of future development.

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Modeling and data analysis were performed by M. Mitchell and J. Herman. The first draft of the manuscript was written by M. Mitchell and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Molly Mitchell.

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Mitchell, M., Herman, J. & Hershner, C. Evolution of Tidal Marsh Distribution under Accelerating Sea Level Rise. Wetlands 40, 1789–1800 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13157-020-01387-1

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  • Tidal marsh
  • Sea level rise
  • Marsh migration
  • Ecological conflicts