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Overestimation of marsh vulnerability to sea level rise


Coastal marshes are considered to be among the most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth, where the imminent loss of ecosystem services is a feared consequence of sea level rise. However, we show with a meta-analysis that global measurements of marsh elevation change indicate that marshes are generally building at rates similar to or exceeding historical sea level rise, and that process-based models predict survival under a wide range of future sea level scenarios. We argue that marsh vulnerability tends to be overstated because assessment methods often fail to consider biophysical feedback processes known to accelerate soil building with sea level rise, and the potential for marshes to migrate inland.

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Figure 1: Meta-analysis of vertical accretion and elevation change rates of Atlantic and Gulf Coast salt marshes in North America and Europe.
Figure 2: An example of a SLAMM model simulation illustrating near-complete loss of marshes in Chesapeake and Delaware Bay (USA) in response to 1 m sea level rise65.
Figure 3: Maximum rates of sea level rise for marsh survival.
Figure 4: Marsh migration into adjacent uplands.


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We thank D. Cahoon, J. French, P. Hensel, K. McKee, D. Reed, N. Saintilan, and T. Spencer for their generosity in sharing data that contributed to Fig. 1. J. Smith provided the photograph in Fig. 4a. This work was supported financially by the US Geological Survey Climate and Land Use Change Research and Development Program (G.R.G. and M.L.K), NSF 1237733 (M.L.K and S.F), NSF 1426981 (M.L.K), NSF 1354251 (S.F.), FWO K2.174.14N (S.T.) and UA-BOF DOCPRO (S.T.). Any use of trade, product or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. This is contribution number 3510 of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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M.L.K. designed the study, E.E.S. conducted the meta-analysis, and all authors wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Matthew L. Kirwan.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Kirwan, M., Temmerman, S., Skeehan, E. et al. Overestimation of marsh vulnerability to sea level rise. Nature Clim Change 6, 253–260 (2016).

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