A positive relationship between interannual sea level and plant growth is thought to stabilize many coastal landforms responding to accelerating rates of sea level rise. Numerical models of delta growth, tidal channel network evolution, and ecosystem resilience incorporate a hump-shaped relationship between inundation and plant primary production, where vegetation growth increases with sea level up to an optimum water depth or inundation frequency. In contrast, we use decade-long measurements of Spartina alterniflora biomass in seven coastal Virginia (USA) marshes to demonstrate that interannual sea level is rarely a primary determinant of vegetation growth. Although we find tepid support for a hump-shaped relationship between aboveground production and inundation when marshes of different elevation are considered, our results suggest that marshes high in the intertidal zone and low in relief are unresponsive to sea level fluctuations. We suggest existing models are unable to capture the behavior of wetlands in these portions of the landscape, and may underestimate their vulnerability to sea level rise because sea level rise will not be accompanied by enhanced plant growth and resultant sediment accumulation.
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On the relationship between sea level and Spartina alterniflora production