Mid Atlantic coastal salt marshes contain a matrix of vegetation diversified by tidal pools, pannes, and creeks, providing habitats of varying importance to many species of breeding, migrating, and wintering waterbirds. We hypothesized that changes in marsh elevation were not sufficient to keep pace with those of sea level in both vegetated and unvegetated Spartina alterniflora sites at a number of mid lagoon marsh areas along the Atlantic coast. We also predicted that northern areas would suffer less of a deficit than would southern sites. Beginning in August 1998, we installed surface elevation tables at study sites on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, southern New Jersey, and two locations along Virginia's eastern shore. We compared these elevation changes over the 4-4.5 yr record with the long-term (> 50 yr) tidal records for each locale. We also collected data on waterbird use of these sites during all seasons of the year, based on ground surveys and replicated surveys from observation platforms. Three patterns of marsh elevation change were found. At Nauset Marsh, Cape Cod, the Spartina marsh surface tracked the pond surface, both keeping pace with regional sea-level rise rates. In New Jersey, the ponds are becoming deeper while marsh surface elevation remains unchanged from the initial reading. This may result in a submergence of the marsh in the future, assuming sea-level rise continues at current rates. Ponds at both Virginia sites are filling in, while marsh surface elevation rates do not seem to be keeping pace with local sea-level rise. An additional finding at all sites was that subsidence in the vegetated marsh surfaces was less than in unvegetated areas, reflecting the importance of the root mat in stabilizing sediments. The implications to migratory waterbirds are significant. Submergence of much of the lagoonal marsh area in Virginia and New Jersey over the next century could have major negative (i.e., flooding) effects on nesting populations of marsh-dependent seaside sparrows Ammodramus maritimus, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows A. caudacutus, black rails Laterallus jamaicensis, clapper rails Rallus longirostris, Forster's terns Sterna forsteri, common terns Sterna hirundo, and gull-billed terns Sterna nilotica. Although short-term inundation of many lagoonal marshes may benefit some open-water feeding ducks, geese, and swans during winter, the long-term ecosystem effects may be detrimental, as wildlife resources will be lost or displaced. With the reduction in area of emergent marsh, estuarine secondary productivity and biotic diversity will also be reduced.
Additional publication details
Surface elevation dynamics in vegetated Spartina marshes versus unvegetated tidal ponds along the mid-Atlantic coast, USA, with implications to waterbirds