Hurricane Sandy Impacts on Coastal Wetland Resilience

Open-File Report 2018-1142
By: , and 



The goal of this research was to evaluate the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on surface elevation trends in estuarine marshes located across the northeast region of the United States from Virginia to Maine using data from an opportunistic (in other words, not strategic) and collaborative network (from here on, an opportunistic network) of surface elevation table-marker horizon (SET-MH) stations. First, we built a data-base of metadata for 965 individual stations from 96 unique geographical locations that included the location, geomorphic setting, and wetland type for each SET-MH station. The dominant estuarine settings included in the analyses were back-barrier lagoonal marshes and emergent marshes along embayments and tidal tributaries. We then calculated prestorm elevation trends to compare to poststorm elevation measurements to determine the storm impact on each station trend. We hypothesized that the effect of Hurricane Sandy on marsh elevation trends would differ by position relative to landfall (right or left) and distance from landfall in southern New Jersey, as both of these variables influence the presence or absence of storm surge as a result of the physical characteristics of tropical cyclones (in other words, strongest winds typically occur to the right of landfall). Storm surge was spatially less extensive and less deep (~1 meter [m]) in marshes located to the left (in other words, south) of landfall compared to marshes located to the right (in other words, north) of landfall where storm surge covered a larger area and was deeper (3–4 m). About 63 percent of 223 eligible stations had a poststorm trend that was similar to the prestorm trend (in other words, less than ±5 millimeters [mm]), indicating little storm impact on elevation trends at those sites. The remaining 37 percent of stations exhibited significant poststorm deviations from the prestorm trend (in other words, greater than ±5 mm). Of these, stations located to the left of landfall had a significant and greater deviation in their elevation trend, and the deviation was more likely to be positive (elevation gain) compared to marshes located to the right of landfall, which had a significant deviation in their elevation trend that was more likely to be negative (elevation loss). This finding is directly related to storm surge impacts on marsh sediment deposition, where deep storm surge (3–4 m) results in sediment deposition in habitats inland of coastal marshes but less so in the marshes themselves. Substrate compaction by the storm surge over-burden may have contributed to elevation loss, but this was not measured because sufficient marker horizon data were not available for analysis. In contrast, to the left of landfall the wind-driven flooding of sediment laden water pushed into the headwaters of rivers and small bays with an ~1 m surge, and resulted in more prevalent sediment deposition on the marsh surfaces and elevation gain. In general, the findings support previous research showing that the physical characteristics of the storm (for example, wind speed, storm surge height, impact angle of landfall) combined with the local wetland conditions (for example, marsh productivity, groundwater level, tide height) are important factors determining a storm’s impact on soil elevation, and that the soil elevation response can vary widely among multiple wetland sites impacted by the same storm and among different storms for the same wetland site.

The final objective of this project was to create a framework using metadata from the opportunistic network of SET-MH stations that could be used to develop a strategic monitoring network designed to address specific climate change impacts and related phenomena identified by land managers and stakeholders. We evaluated the spatial distribution and density of SET-MH stations in relation to geographic coverage, marsh setting, availability of public land, and historical storm surge footprints and hurricane return intervals in order to identify gaps in our understanding of risk and our ability to assess it. Analyses revealed that the general geographic coverage of SET-MH stations is limited given the low percentage of marsh patches with stations, low density of stations, the clumped distribution of stations, and the often limited and uneven distribution of stations in wetlands with a high historical frequency of hurricane strikes and storm surge impacts. These findings can be used by managers and planners to inform the creation of a strategic monitoring network that can, in turn, inform management and adaptation plans for coastal resources in the region. Final plan designs will need to consider financial and infrastructural support required for station maintenance, as well as data collection and management over the long term.

Suggested Citation

Cahoon, D.R., Olker, J.H., Yeates, A.G., Guntenspergen, G.R., Grace, J.B., Adamowicz, S.C., Anisfeld, S., Baldwin, A.H., Barrett, N., Beckett, L., Benzecry, A., Blum, L.K., Burdick, D.M., Crouch, W., Ekberg, M.C., Fernald, S., Grimes, K.W., Grzyb, J., Hartig, E.K., Kreeger, D.A., Larson, M., Lerberg, S., Lynch, J.C., Maher, N., Maxwell-Doyle, M., Mitchell, L.R., Mora, J., O’Neill, V., Padeletti, A., Prosser, D., Quirk, T., Raposa, K.B., Reay, W.G., Siok, D., Snow, C., Starke, A., Staver, L., Stevenson, J.C., and Turner, V., 2019, Hurricane Sandy impacts on coastal wetland resilience: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1142, 117 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Inventory and Distribution of SET-MH Stations Along the Atlantic Coast
  • Data Formatting and Analyses
  • Location and Distribution of Stations
  • Metadata Summary
  • Hurricane Sandy Effects on Coastal Marsh Elevation Change
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Factors to Consider in Development of a Strategic Monitoring Framework
  • Methods
  • Incorporating Risk—Data Sources and Application
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Glossary
  • Appendix 1. The Surface Elevation Table-Marker Horizon Method
  • Appendix 2. SET-MH Metadata Spreadsheet
  • Appendix 3. Best Model Summaries
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Hurricane Sandy impacts on coastal wetland resilience
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2018-1142
DOI 10.3133/ofr20181142
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Eastern Ecological Science Center
Description xii, 117 p.
Country United States
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details