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Wave attenuation over coastal salt marshes under storm surge conditions

An Addendum to this article was published on 30 October 2014

This article has been updated


Coastal communities around the world face an increasing risk from flooding as a result of rising sea level, increasing storminess and land subsidence1,2. Salt marshes can act as natural buffer zones, providing protection from waves during storms3,4,5,6,7. However, the effectiveness of marshes in protecting the coastline during extreme events when water levels are at a maximum and waves are highest is poorly understood8,9. Here we experimentally assess wave dissipation under storm surge conditions in a 300-metre-long wave flume tank that contains a transplanted section of natural salt marsh. We find that the presence of marsh vegetation causes considerable wave attenuation, even when water levels and waves are highest. From a comparison with experiments without vegetation, we estimate that up to 60% of observed wave reduction is attributed to vegetation. We also find that although waves progressively flatten and break vegetation stems and thereby reduce dissipation, the marsh substrate remained stable and resistant to surface erosion under all conditions. The effectiveness of storm wave dissipation and the resilience of tidal marshes even at extreme conditions suggest that salt marsh ecosystems can be a valuable component of coastal protection schemes.

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Figure 1: Experimental set-up and photographs of excavation.
Figure 2: Wave dissipation across 40 m of vegetated and mowed salt marsh.
Figure 3: Puccinellia plant canopy movement during wave motion.

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We thank all of the staff at the Grosser Wellenkanal as well as B. Evans, J. Tempest, K. Milonidis and C. Edwards, Cambridge University, and D. Schulze, Hamburg University, for their invaluable logistical assistance, Fitzwilliam College for supporting the research time of I.M., and C. Rolfe, Cambridge University, for the soil analysis. The work described in this publication was supported by the European Community’s 7th Framework Programme through the grant to the budget of the Integrating Activity HYDRALAB IV, Contract no. 261529 and a grant from The Isaac Newton Trust, Trinity College, Cambridge.

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I.M., B.K.v.W., G.W., T.S., T.J.B., S.S., M.K., M.M-L., M.P. and K.J. designed the experiment. I.M., F.R., M.K., M.M-L., M.P., T.S., G.W. and S.S. participated in the construction and running of the experiment. I.M. and M.K. conducted the wave data analysis with F.R. processing biomass and video information. I.M. processed the soil elevation data and wrote the initial manuscript. All authors contributed to and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Iris Möller.

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Möller, I., Kudella, M., Rupprecht, F. et al. Wave attenuation over coastal salt marshes under storm surge conditions. Nature Geosci 7, 727–731 (2014).

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