Measuring and interpreting the surface and shallow subsurface process influences on coastal wetland elevation: A review

Estuaries and Coasts



A century ago, measuring elevation in tidal wetlands proved difficult, as survey leveling of soft marsh soils relative to a fixed datum was error prone. For 60 years, vertical accretion measures from marker horizons were used as analogs of elevation change. But without a direct measure of elevation, it was not possible to measure the total influence of surface and subsurface processes on elevation. In the 1990s, the surface elevation table (SET) method, which measures the movement of the wetland surface relative to a fixed point beneath the surface (i.e., the SET benchmark base), was combined with the marker horizon method (SET-MH), providing direct, independent, and simultaneous measures of surface accretion and elevation and quantification of surface and shallow subsurface process influences on elevation. SET-MH measures have revealed several fundamental findings about tidal wetland dynamics. First, accretion [A] is often a poor analog for elevation change [E]. From 50–66% of wetlands experience shallow subsidence (A > E), 7–10% shallow expansion (A < E), 7% shrink-swell, and for 24–36% A is an analog for E (A = E). Second, biological processes within the root zone and physical processes within and below the root zone influence elevation change in addition to surface processes. Third, vegetation plays a key role in wetland vertical dynamics. Plants trap sediment and increase resistance to erosion and compaction. Soil organic matter accumulation can lead to shallow expansion, but reduced plant growth can lead to subsidence, and plant death to soil collapse. Fourth, elevation rates are a better indicator of wetland response to sea-level rise than accretion rates because they incorporate subsurface influences on elevation occurring beneath the marker horizon. Fifth, combining elevation trends with relative sea-level rise (RSLR) trends improves estimates of RSLR at the wetland surface (i.e., RSLRwet). Lastly, subsurface process influences are fundamental to a wetland’s response to RSLR and plant community dynamics related to wetland transgression, making the SET-MH method an invaluable tool for understanding coastal wetland elevation dynamics.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Measuring and interpreting the surface and shallow subsurface process influences on coastal wetland elevation: A review
Series title Estuaries and Coasts
DOI 10.1007/s12237-024-01332-z
Edition Online First
Year Published 2024
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Eastern Ecological Science Center
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