Rapid shoreward encroachment of salt marsh cordgrass in response to accelerated sea-level rise

TitleRapid shoreward encroachment of salt marsh cordgrass in response to accelerated sea-level rise
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2001
AuthorsDonnelly, JP, Bertness, MD
JournalProc Natl Acad Sci U S A
Date PublishedDec 04
ISSN0027-8424 (Linking)
Accession Number11724926

The distribution of New England salt marsh communities is intrinsically linked to the magnitude, frequency, and duration of tidal inundation. Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) exclusively inhabits the frequently flooded lower elevations, whereas a mosaic of marsh hay (Spartina patens), spike grass (Distichlis spicata), and black rush (Juncus gerardi) typically dominate higher elevations. Monitoring plant zonal boundaries in two New England salt marshes revealed that low-marsh cordgrass rapidly moved landward at the expense of higher-marsh species between 1995 and 1998. Plant macrofossils from sediment cores across modern plant community boundaries provided a 2,500-year record of marsh community composition and documented the migration of cordgrass into the high marsh. Isotopic dating revealed that the initiation of cordgrass migration occurred in the late 19th century and continued through the 20th century. The timing of the initiation of cordgrass migration is coincident with an acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise recorded by the New York tide gauge. These results suggest that increased flooding associated with accelerating rates of sea-level rise has stressed high-marsh communities and promoted landward migration of cordgrass. If current rates of sea-level rise continue or increase slightly over the next century, New England salt marshes will be dominated by cordgrass. If climate warming causes sea-level rise rates to increase significantly over the next century, these cordgrass-dominated marshes will likely drown, resulting in extensive losses of coastal wetlands.