Oyster reefs can outpace sea-level rise


In the high-salinity seaward portions of estuaries, oysters seek refuge from predation, competition and disease in intertidal areas1,2, but this sanctuary will be lost if vertical reef accretion cannot keep pace with sea-level rise (SLR). Oyster-reef abundance has already declined 85% globally over the past 100 years, mainly from over harvesting3,4, making any additional losses due to SLR cause for concern. Before any assessment of reef response to accelerated SLR can be made, direct measures of reef growth are necessary. Here, we present direct measurements of intertidal oyster-reef growth from cores and terrestrial lidar-derived digital elevation models. On the basis of our measurements collected within a mid-Atlantic estuary over a 15-year period, we developed a globally testable empirical model of intertidal oyster-reef accretion. We show that previous estimates of vertical reef growth, based on radiocarbon dates and bathymetric maps5,6, may be greater than one order of magnitude too slow. The intertidal reefs we studied should be able to keep up with any future accelerated rate of SLR (ref. 7) and may even benefit from the additional subaqueous space allowing extended vertical accretion.

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Figure 1: Oyster-reef compositional changes with depth.
Figure 2: Oyster-reef growth through time.
Figure 3: Transects A–A′ and B–B′ across the reefs at different growth stages.


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We thank A. Poray, A. Tyler, N. Anderson, E. Voigt, C. Baillie, G. Safrit, J. Hancock, S. Fuller and the NC Division of Marine Fisheries (C. Hardy, M. Jordan and G. Hardin) for assistance in constructing experimental reefs and P. Rodriguez for processing cores. This research was supported by funding from the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program to N.L.L., F.J.F. and A.B.R., North Carolina Sea Grant to A.B.R. and F.J.F., North Carolina Marine Resources Fund (CRFL) to A.B.R., NOAA-NERRS Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NOAA award Number 97-040-NOC) to J.H.G., the North Carolina Fishery Resource Grant Program (FRG Project Number 97-EP-06 and 98-EP-16) to J.H.G., and the National Science Foundation (OCE-1155628) to F.J.F. and (OCE-1203859) to J.H.G.

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A.B.R., F.J.F., J.H.G. and N.L.L. conceived of the project. A.B.R., F.J.F., J.T.R., E.J.T. and S.E.C. collected field data. A.B.R., J.T.R. and S.E.C. processed data. A.B.R. wrote the article. All authors constructed experimental reefs, contributed to discussions and interpretations of the results, and edited the manuscript.

Correspondence to Antonio B. Rodriguez.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Rodriguez, A., Fodrie, F., Ridge, J. et al. Oyster reefs can outpace sea-level rise. Nature Clim Change 4, 493–497 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2216

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