Environmental Science and Engineering Seminar
Salt marshes are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth, providing nurseries for fish species and shelter and food for endangered birds. Salt marshes also mitigate the impacts of hurricanes and tsunamis, and sequester large volumes of carbon in their peat soil. Understanding the mechanisms responsible for marsh stability or deterioration is therefore a key issue for society. Sea level rise is often viewed as the main driver of salt marsh deterioration. However, while salt marshes can reach equilibrium in the vertical direction, they are inherently unstable in the horizontal direction. Marsh expansion driven by sediment supply rarely matches lateral erosion by waves, creating a dynamic landscape. Recent results show that marsh collapse can occur in the absence of sea level rise if the rate at which sediment is eroded at marsh boundaries is higher than the input of sediment from nearby rivers or from the continental shelf. We propose that the horizontal dynamics and related sediment fluxes are key factors determining the survival of salt marshes. Only a complete sediment budget between salt marshes and nearby tidal flats can determine the fate of marshes at any given location, with sea level rise being only one among many external drivers. Ancient Venetians understood this dynamic very well. They manipulated the supply of sediment to the Venice lagoon, Italy, in order to control the long-term evolution of the intertidal landscape.