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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1183

In cooperation with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

Wave Exposure of Corte Madera Marsh, Marin County, California—a Field Investigation

By Jessica R. Lacy and Daniel J. Hoover

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (1.9 MB)Introduction

Tidal wetlands provide valuable habitat, are an important source of primary productivity, and can help to protect the shoreline from erosion by attenuating approaching waves. These functions are threatened by the loss of tidal marshes, whether due to erosion, sea-level rise, or land-use practices. Erosion protection by wetlands is expected to vary geographically, because wave attenuation in marshes depends on vegetation type, density, and height and wave attenuation over mudflats depends on slope and sediment properties. In macrotidal northern European marshes, a 50 percent reduction in wave height within tens of meters of vegetated salt marsh has been observed. This study was designed to evaluate the role of mudflats and marshes in attenuating waves at a site in San Francisco Bay.

In prehistoric times, the shoreline of San Francisco Bay was ringed with tidal wetlands, with mudflats at lower elevations and marshes above. Most of the marshes around the Bay emerged 2,000–4,000 years ago, after the rate of sea-level rise slowed to approximately 1 mm/year. Approximately 80 percent of the acreage of tidal marsh and 40 percent of the acreage of tidal mudflats in San Francisco Bay have been lost to filling and draining since 1800. Tidal wetlands are particularly susceptible to impacts from sea-level rise because the vegetation at each elevation is adapted to a specific tidal-inundation regime. The maintenance of suitable marsh-plain elevations depends on a supply of sediment that can keep up with the rate of sea-level rise. Sea-level rise, which according to recent projections may reach 75 to 190 cm by the year 2100, poses a significant threat to wetlands in San Francisco Bay, where landward migration is frequently impossible due to urbanization of the adjacent landscape.

In this study, we collected data in Corte Madera Bay and Marsh to determine whether, and to what degree, waves are attenuated as they transit the Bay and, during high tides, the marsh. Corte Madera Bay was selected as a study site because of its exposure to wind waves, as well as its history of shoreline erosion and marsh restoration and monitoring. Data were collected in the winter of 2010, along a cross-shore transect extending from offshore of the subtidal mudflats into the tidal marsh. This study forms part of the Innovative Wetland Adaptation in the Lower Corte Madera Creek Watershed Project initiated by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) (


This study was designed to address the following questions:
• What are the characteristics of waves and currents in the study area, and how do they vary over time?
• Do wave heights or orbital velocities decrease, or wave periods change, as waves pass over the mudflats?
• Do wave heights decrease, or wave periods change, as waves pass over the marsh?

  • This report is available only on the Web.

For additional information:
Contact Information, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Pacific Science Center
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, California 95060

This report is presented in Portable Document Format (PDF); the latest version of Adobe Reader or similar software is required to view it. Download the latest version of Adobe Reader, free of charge.

Suggested citation:

Lacy, J.R., and Hoover, D.J., 2011, Wave exposure of Corte Madera Marsh, Marin County, California—a field investigation: US Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1183, 28 p.





Summary and conclusions


References cited

one appendix

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