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Open-File Report 2010–1269

Prepared in Cooperation with the National Park Service

Analysis of the Deconstruction of Dyke Marsh, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia: Progression, Geologic and Manmade Causes, and Effective Restoration Scenarios

By Ronald J. Litwin, Joseph P. Smoot, Milan J. Pavich, Helaine W. Markewich, Erik Oberg, Ben Helwig, Brent Steury, Vincent L. Santucci, Nancy J. Durika, Nancy B. Rybicki, Katharina M. Engelhardt, Geoffrey Sanders, Stacey Verardo, Andrew J. Elmore, and Joseph Gilmer

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This report is a synthesis of the latest findings from an ongoing study of Dyke Marsh, an eroding freshwater tidal wetland that is scheduled for federal restoration. Its purpose is to provide an accurate and up-to-date temporal and geological framework for the marsh, of which most is new information (plus a compilation of historical and recent information), that is directly relevant to the restoration effort and also is relevant to short-term and long-term land management decisions regarding this natural resource.

Analysis of field evidence, aerial photography, and published maps has revealed an accelerating rate of erosion and marsh loss at Dyke Marsh, which now appears to put at risk the short term survivability of this marsh. The destabilization of Dyke Marsh is outlined here, spanning an approximately 70-year time interval (1940–2010). This freshwater tidal marsh has shifted from a semi-stable net depositional environment (1864–1937) into a strongly erosional one, during a time when it currently is in early-phase planning for comprehensive restoration. The marsh has been deconstructed over the past 70 years by a combination of manmade and natural causes. The marsh initially experienced a strong destabilizing period between 1940 and 1972 by direct dredge mining of the marsh surface. By 1976 the marsh had entered a net destructive phase, where it remains at present.

Photoanalysis of time-sequence aerial photographs of Dyke Marsh enabled us to calculate shoreline erosion estimates for this marsh over 19 years (1987–2006), as well as to quantify overall marsh acreage for 6 calendar years spanning an ~70 year interval (1937–2006). Photo overlay of a historic map enabled us to extend our whole-marsh acreage calculations back to 1883. Both sets of analyses were part of a geologic framework study in support of current efforts by the National Park Service (NPS) to restore this urban wetland. Two time intervals were selected for our shoreline erosion analyses, based on image quality and availability: 1987 to 2002, and 2002 to 2006. The more recent time interval shows a marked increase in erosion in the southern part of Dyke Marsh, following a wave-induced breach of a small peninsula that had protected its southern shoreline. Field observations and analyses of annual aerial imagery between 1987 and 2006 revealed a progressive increase in wave-induced erosion that presently is deconstructing Hog Island Gut, the last significant tidal creek network within the Dyke Marsh. These photo analyses documented an overall average westward shoreline loss of 6.0 to 7.8 linear feet per year along the Potomac River during this 19-year time interval. Additionally, photographic evidence documented that lateral erosion now is capturing existing higher order tributaries in the Hog Island Gut. Wave-driven stream piracy is fragmenting the remaining marsh habitat, and therefore its connectivity, relatively rapidly, causing the effective mouth of the Hog Island Gut tidal network to retreat headward visibly over the past several decades. Based on our estimates of total marsh area in the Dyke Marsh derived from 1987 aerial imagery, as much as 12 percent of the central part of the marsh has eroded in the 19 year period we studied (or ~7.5 percent of the original ~78.8 acres of 1987 marshland). Shoreline loss estimates for marsh parcels north and south of our study area have not yet been analyzed, although annual aerial photos from 1987 to 2002 confirm visible progressive shoreline loss in those areas over this same time interval.

First posted March 3, 2011

For additional information contact:
Ronald J. Litwin
USGS National Center
MS 926-A
12201 Sunrise Valley Dr.
Reston, VA 20192-0002
(703) 648-5284

USGS Climate and Land Use Change Research and Development

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Suggested citation:

Litwin, R.J., Smoot, J.P., Pavich, M.J., Markewich, H.W., Oberg, Erik, Helwig, Ben, Steury, Brent, Santucci, V.L., Durika, N.J., Rybicki, N.B., Engelhardt, K.M., Sanders, Geoffrey, Verardo, Stacey, Elmore, A.J., and Gilmer, Joseph, 2011, Analysis of the deconstruction of Dyke Marsh, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia—Progression, geologic and manmade causes, and effective restoration scenarios: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010–1269, 80 p.


Executive Summary


Purpose of Study


Previous Studies

Temporal Framework of Dyke Marsh: Revision of Age

Geological Framework of Marsh

Estimation of Acreage of Marsh

Estimating the Historic Stable Configuration for Dyke Marsh


Estimation of Marsh's Potential Sustainability

Geomorphic (Topographic) Changes Favoring Sedimentation and Marsh Stability



References Cited

Appendixes 1–5

Appendix 1. Excerpts of Federal legislation ceding Dyke Marsh to the National Park Service, and mandating its restoration

Appendix 2. State rare plants and animals and recent federally delisted birds found at Dyke Marsh, with status codes

Appendix 3. Metadata for imagery used in this report

Appendix 4. Tracks of tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes (warm-cored storms) that likely induced erosion at Dyke Marsh (1939–2009)

Appendix 5. Winter storms that likely induced shoreline erosion at Dyke Marsh

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