Understanding tidal marsh trajectories: Evaluation of multiple indicators of marsh persistence

Kerstin Wasson, Neil K. Ganju, Zafer Defne, Charlie Endris, Tracy Elsey-Quirk, Karen M. Thorne, Chase M. Freeman, Glenn Guntenspergen, Daniel J. Nowacki, Kenneth B. Raposa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Robust assessments of ecosystem stability are critical for informing conservation and management decisions. Tidal marsh ecosystems provide vital services, yet are globally threatened by anthropogenic alterations to physical and biological processes. A variety of monitoring and modeling approaches have been undertaken to determine which tidal marshes are likely to persist into the future. Here, we conduct the most robust comparison of marsh metrics to date, building on two foundational studies that had previously and independently developed metrics for marsh condition. We characterized pairs of marshes with contrasting trajectories of marsh cover across six regions of the United States, using a combination of remote-sensing and field-based metrics. We also quantified decadal trends in marsh conversion to mudflat/open water at these twelve marshes. Our results suggest that metrics quantifying the distribution of vegetation across an elevational gradient represent the best indicators of marsh trajectories. The unvegetated to vegetated ratio and flood-ebb sediment differential also served as valuable indicators. No single metric universally predicted marsh trajectories, and therefore a more robust approach includes a suite of spatially-integrated, landscape-scale metrics that are mostly obtainable from remote sensing. Data from surface elevation tables and marker horizons revealed that degrading marshes can have higher rates of vertical accretion and elevation gain than more intact counterparts, likely due to longer inundation times potentially combined with internal recycling of material. A high rate of elevation gain relative to local sea-level rise has been considered critical to marsh persistence, but our results suggest that it also may serve as a signature of degradation in marshes that have already begun to deteriorate. This investigation, with rigorous comparison and integration of metrics initially developed independently, tested at a broad geographic scale, provides a model for collaborative science to develop management tools for improving conservation outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number124073
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 18 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • Management
  • Resilience
  • Sea-level rise
  • Tidal marsh
  • Wetland


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