The effect of a small vegetation dieback event on salt marsh sediment transport

Daniel J. Coleman, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Matthew L. Kirwan, Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Abstract

Vegetation is a critical component of the ecogeomorphic feedbacks that allow a salt marsh to build soil and accrete vertically. Vegetation dieback can therefore have detrimental effects on marsh stability, especially under conditions of rising sea levels. Here, we report a variety of sediment transport measurements associated with an unexpected, natural dieback in a rapidly prograding marsh in the Altamaha River Estuary, Georgia. We find that vegetation mortality led to a significant loss in elevation at the dieback site as evidenced by measurements of vertical accretion, erosion, and surface topography compared to vegetated reference areas. Below‐ground vegetation mortality led to reduced soil shear strength. The dieback site displayed an erosional, concave‐up topographic profile, in contrast to the reference sites. At the location directly impacted by the dieback, there was a reduction in flood dominance of suspended sediment concentration. Our work illustrates how a vegetation disturbance can at least temporarily reverse the local trajectory of a prograding marsh and produce complex patterns of sediment transport.