Morphodynamic responses of salt marshes to sea-level rise: upland expansion, drainage evolution, and biological feedbacks
Farron, Sarah Jean
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Accelerating sea-level rise (SLR) poses an imminent threat to salt marshes, which sit within meters of mean sea level. In order to assess marsh vulnerability to SLR, we must first understand the fundamental processes governing marsh response to SLR. The objective of this dissertation work is to examine how marsh sedimentation and erosion affect the morphological development of marshes as sea level rises, over a broad range of spatial and temporal scales. At the smallest scale, the effects of bioturbation by Sesarma reticulatum crabs on sediment erodibility are examined using a laboratory flume. Measurements of surface elevation, erosion, and turbidity show that S. reticulatum bioturbation repackages formerly compacted sediment and deposits it above the surface, decreasing the threshold velocity for erosion and increasing eroded volume. S. reticulatum-induced sediment erosion can have broader impacts on creek development and marsh morphology. S. reticulatum has facilitated drainage network expansion in salt marshes at Sapelo Island, GA and Cape Romain, SC in response to local SLR. Burrowing by this crab directly adjacent to tidal creeks at these locations leads to rapid headward growth. The effects of site-specific conditions on creek expansion are examined through comparison of sediment properties, surface elevations, and historical rates of creek growth at each site. Results suggest that while similar processes are occurring at both locations, the higher elevation of the marsh in GA leads to greater shear strength and a larger volume of material to be eroded by creeks. These combined effects have led to slower creek growth compared to SC. At the largest spatial scale, and projecting forward over a 100-year period, a model for marsh response to SLR at the Great Marsh in Massachusetts is developed. This model takes into account limitations imposed by both low sediment availability and steep topography in the surrounding uplands. Results indicate that while the marsh may persist for several decades, it undergoes a dramatic shift in ecology and hydrology. As the rate of SLR accelerates, marsh loss increases due to the lack of sediment available for accretion and the physical barriers to migration presented by surrounding topography.