Spatio-temporal development of vegetation die-off in a submerging coastal marsh

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Abstract

In several places around the world, coastal marsh vegetation is converting to open water through the formation of pools. This is concerning, as vegetation die-off is expected to reduce the marshes' capacity to adapt to sea level rise by vegetation-induced sediment accretion. Quantitative analyses of the spatial and temporal development of marsh vegetation die-off are scarce, although these are needed to understand the bio-geomorphic feedback effects of vegetation die-off on flow, erosion, and sedimentation. In this study, we quantified the spatial and temporal development of marsh vegetation die-off with aerial images from 1938 to 2010 in a submerging coastal marsh along the Blackwater River (Maryland, U.S.A). Our results indicate that die-off begins with conversion of marsh vegetation into bare open water pools that are relatively far (> 75 m) from tidal channels. As vegetation die-off continues, pools expand, and new pools emerge at shorter and shorter distances from channels. Consequently larger pools are found at larger distances from the channels. Our results suggest that the size of the pools and possibly the connection of pools with the tidal channel system have important bio-geomorphic implications and aggravate marsh deterioration. Moreover, we found that the temporal development of vegetation die-off in moderately degraded marshes is similar as the spatial die-off development along a present-day gradient, which indicates that the contemporary die-off gradient might be considered a chronosequence that offers a unique opportunity to study vegetation die-off processes.

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Schepers, L., Kirwan, M., Guntenspergen, G., & Temmerman, S. (2017). Spatio-temporal development of vegetation die-off in a submerging coastal marsh. Limnology and Oceanography, 62(1), 137–150. https://doi.org/10.1002/lno.10381

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