Anthropogenic and climatic forces have modified the geomorphology of tidal wetlands over a range of timescales. Changes in land use, sediment supply, river flow, storminess, and sea level alter the layout of tidal channels, intertidal flats, and marsh plains; these elements define wetland complexes. Diagnostically, measurements of net sediment fluxes through tidal channels are high-temporal resolution, spatially integrated quantities that indicate (1) whether a complex is stable over seasonal timescales and (2) what mechanisms are leading to that state. We estimated sediment fluxes through tidal channels draining wetland complexes on the Blackwater and Transquaking Rivers, Maryland, USA. While the Blackwater complex has experienced decades of degradation and been largely converted to open water, the Transquaking complex has persisted as an expansive, vegetated marsh. The measured net export at the Blackwater complex (1.0 kg/s or 0.56 kg/m2/yr over the landward marsh area) was caused by northwesterly winds, which exported water and sediment on the subtidal timescale; tidally forced net fluxes were weak and precluded landward transport of suspended sediment from potential seaward sources. Though wind forcing also exported sediment at the Transquaking complex, strong tidal forcing and proximity to a turbidity maximum led to an import of sediment (0.031 kg/s or 0.70 kg/m2/yr). This resulted in a spatially averaged accretion of 3.9 mm/yr, equaling the regional relative sea level rise. Our results suggest that in areas where seaward sediment supply is dominant, seaward wetlands may be more capable of withstanding sea level rise over the short term than landward wetlands. We propose a conceptual model to determine a complex's tendency toward stability or instability based on sediment source, wetland channel location, and transport mechanisms. Wetlands with a reliable portfolio of sources and transport mechanisms appear better suited to offset natural and anthropogenic loss.
Additional publication details
Inferring tidal wetland stability from channel sediment fluxes: observations and a conceptual model