Anthropocene survival of southern New England's salt marshes. Academic Article uri icon


  • In southern New England, salt marshes are exceptionally vulnerable to the impacts of accelerated sea level rise. Regional rates of sea level rise have been as much as 50% greater than the global average over past decades: a more than four-fold increase over late-Holocene background values. In addition, coastal development blocks many potential marsh migration routes, and compensatory mechanisms relying on positive feedbacks between inundation and sediment deposition are insufficient to counter inundation increases in extreme low turbidity tidal waters. Accordingly, multiple lines of evidence suggest marsh submergence is occurring in southern New England. A combination of monitoring data, field re-surveys, radiometric dating, and analysis of peat composition have established that, beginning in the early and mid-twentieth century, the dominant low marsh plant, Spartina alterniflora, has encroached upwards in tidal marshes, and typical high marsh plants, including Juncus gerardii and Spartina patens have declined, providing strong evidence that vegetation changes are being driven, at least in part, by higher water levels. Additionally, aerial and satellite imagery show shoreline retreat, widening and headward extension of channels, and new and expanded interior depressions. Papers in this special section highlight changes in marsh-building processes, patterns of vegetation loss, and shifts in species composition. The final papers turn to strategies for minimizing and coping with marsh loss by managing adaptively and planning for landward marsh migration. It is hoped that this collection offers lessons that will be of use to researchers and managers on coasts where relative sea level is not yet rising as fast as in southern New England.

publication date

  • May 1, 2017