Impact of land-use change and hard structures on the evolution of fringing marsh shorelines

Christopher R. Mattheus, Antonio B. Rodriguez, Brent A. McKee, Carolyn A. Currin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Estuarine fringe marshes provide essential ecosystem services to coastal regions, including carbon sequestration and provision of shelter and nursery grounds for aquatic and terrestrial animals. The ability of a marsh to sustain itself by vertical accretion in response to sea-level rise is, in part, limited by inorganic sediment supply. Models attempting to forecast salt-marsh response to future sea-level rise commonly ignore land-use changes, despite the recent coastal population boom and the potential of land-use changes to alter sediment sources and modify established sediment-transport pathways. This study investigates the impacts of landscape modifications, which are typical of coastal areas, on the nearshore sedimentation and edge evolution of two fringing marshes. The sites examined include a marsh fringing the upper bay and a marsh fringing a beach ridge on the estuarine shoreline of a barrier island. Both sites are located in the same estuarine system, have similar hydrologic settings and comparable vegetation densities. Previous work, marsh cores, and a historical record from aerial photos indicate that although the fringe marshes are in different geomorphic locations, prior to anthropogenic modifications they were similar in terms of nearshore-sediment composition, scarp-shoreline morphology, and shoreline trajectory. The upper-bay marsh was impacted by the introduction of tree farming in the watershed of a tributary creek to the upper bay, which increased upland erosion and caused higher sedimentation rates in the estuary. The back-barrier marsh, which received no contribution from the tree farm because it is distal with respect to river input, was modified by the installation of a pier and rock sill. Terrestrial LIDAR, surface elevation tables, and accretion rates obtained from radioisotope analyses show that the deforestation induced high rates of nearshore and marsh accretion at the upper-bay site, which is promoting marsh colonization and expansion. These same types of data, in addition to aerial photos, were obtained at the back-barrier site and show increased rates of marsh-shoreline erosion adjacent to the structures. The fringing marshes were once similar, but started to evolve differently over a short time period as a result of human-induced changes to the landscape. Coastal development can significantly influence marsh-shoreline behavior, which must be taken into account when developing models of coastal response to sea-level rise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)365-376
Number of pages12
JournalEstuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 10 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • anthropogenic effects
  • estuaries
  • nearshore sedimentation
  • North Carolina
  • salt marshes
  • sea-level changes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


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