A regional classification of the effectiveness of depressional wetlands at mitigating nitrogen transport to surface waters in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain

Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5266
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture
By: , and 



Nitrogen from nonpoint sources contributes to eutrophication, hypoxia, and related ecological degradation in Atlantic Coastal Plain streams and adjacent coastal estuaries such as Chesapeake Bay and Pamlico Sound. Although denitrification in depressional (non-riparian) wetlands common to the Coastal Plain can be a significant landscape sink for nitrogen, the effectiveness of individual wetlands at removing nitrogen varies substantially due to varying hydrogeologic, geochemical, and other landscape conditions, which are often poorly or inconsistently mapped over large areas. A geographic model describing the spatial variability in the likely effectiveness of depressional wetlands in watershed uplands at mitigating nitrogen transport from nonpoint sources to surface waters was constructed for the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain (NACP), from North Carolina through New Jersey. Geographic and statistical techniques were used to develop the model. Available medium-resolution (1:100,000-scale) stream hydrography was used to define 33,799 individual watershed catchments in the study area. Sixteen landscape metrics relevant to the occurrence of depressional wetlands and their effectiveness as nitrogen sinks were defined for each catchment, based primarily on available topographic and soils data. Cluster analysis was used to aggregate the 33,799 catchments into eight wetland landscape regions (WLRs) based on the value of three principal components computed for the 16 original landscape metrics. Significant differences in topography, soil, and land cover among the eight WLRs demonstrate the effectiveness of the clustering technique. Results were used to interpret the relative likelihood of depressional wetlands in each WLR and their likely effectiveness at mitigating nitrogen transport from upland source areas to surface waters. The potential effectiveness of depressional wetlands at mitigating nitrogen transport varies substantially over different parts of the NACP. Depressional wetlands are common in three WLRs covering 32 percent of the area, and have a relatively high potential to mitigate nitrogen transport from nonpoint sources. Conversely, 37 percent of the study area includes rolling hills with relatively high slope and relief, and little likelihood of depressional wetlands. The remainder of the Coastal Plain includes relatively flat watersheds with moderate to low relative likelihood of nitrogen mitigation. The delineation of WLRs in this model should be useful for targeting wetland conservation or restoration efforts, and for estimating the effects of depressional wetlands on the regional nitrogen budget, but should be considered in light of limitations and assumptions inherent in the model.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title A regional classification of the effectiveness of depressional wetlands at mitigating nitrogen transport to surface waters in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2012-5266
DOI 10.3133/sir20125266
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Water Science Center
Description v, 23 p.; Data
First page i
Last page 23
Other Geospatial Atlantic Coastal Plain
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details