Changes in wetland sediment elevation following major storms: implications for estimating trends in relative sea-level rise



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Hurricanes can be important agents of geomorphic change in coastal marshes and mangrove forests. Hurricanes can cause large-scale redistribution of sediments within the coastal environment resulting in sedimentation, erosion, disruption of vegetated substrates, or some combination of these processes in coastal wetlands. It has been proposed that such sediment pulsing events are important at maintaining wetland sediment elevations in sediment-poor settings with high rates of relative sea-level rise, such as the Mississippi River Delta. But do these pulsing events result in a net gain in sediment elevation even when substantial amounts of sediment are deposited? Clearly sediment erosion and scour would result in a loss of elevation. But will a substantial sediment deposit on poorly consolidated sediments always result in a net gain in elevation? If the wetland vegetation is killed by wind, tidal surge, or the introduction of saline water, will there be a collapse of sediment elevation in the absence of root production and ongoing decomposition of root matter? During the past decade several wetlands where my colleagues and I have monitored sedimentation and elevation change have been struck by one to several hurricanes. This paper describes the range of sediment elevation responses to hurricane strikes, the suggested mechanisms driving those responses, the implications for estimating long-term trends in relative sea-level rise, and future research needs for improving our understanding of the role that major storms play in wetland sediment elevation dynamics. For many wetlands the change in sediment elevation was directly proportional to the amount of sediment deposited by the storm. But surprisingly, there was a loss of elevation in some wetlands with substantial sediment deposits. In these wetlands, the impact of the storm was either direct (sedimentation and compaction) or indirect (vegetation death), and the effect on sediment elevation was either permanent or temporary. For example, 2 cm of sediment deposited by Hurricane Andrew on a healthy salt marsh in south Louisiana had a direct and positive effect on sediment elevation. But in a deteriorated salt marsh a 3 cm thick sediment deposit was associated with a permanent loss in elevation (we have monitored this site for 10 years). The apparent mechanism driving elevation loss was compaction of the weakened substrate by the weight of the sediment deposit, the storm surge waters, or both. Clearly, storm-related sediment pulses are not going to save this marsh from becoming submerged by rising sea level. A temporary loss in elevation, as much as 2 cm, was observed in a North Carolina salt marsh with a highly organic substrate after each of 3 successive hurricanes even when sediment was deposited. The loss in elevation was apparently related to degassing of the chronically flooded substrate while the rebound in elevation was apparently related to a temporary drawdown of marsh water levels. Interestingly, sediment elevation increased after Hurricane Dennis in 1999, although the increase was less than the thickness of the sediment deposit. Further research is required to determine the mechanisms driving storm-related elevation change (i.e., compaction and expansion) in this marsh. There were two marshes where the gain in sediment elevation was greater than the thickness of the sediment deposit, but the effect was short-lived. In a high salt marsh in southern California, we hypothesize that the temporary spike in elevation was related to the flushing of salts from the hypersaline soils, which enhanced root growth that led to an increase in elevation. In a marsh with a highly organic substrate in north Florida, temporary increases in elevation (as much as 2 cm) greater than the thickness of the sediment deposit were apparently related to groundwater fluxes, which may have been influenced by enhanced runoff from storm rainfall. Lastly, Hurricane Mitch

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Changes in wetland sediment elevation following major storms: implications for estimating trends in relative sea-level rise
Year Published 2003
Language English
Publisher East Meets West Productions
Publisher location Corpus Christi, Texas
Contributing office(s) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Description 575
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Other Government Series
Larger Work Title Coastal Sediments ?03 Conference: Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: proceedings of the 5th International Symposium on Coastal Engineering and Science of Coastal Sediment Processes, Clearwater Beach, FL, May 18-23, Book of Abstracts
First page 307
Last page 308(abs)