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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5266

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture

A Regional Classification of the Effectiveness of Depressional Wetlands at Mitigating Nitrogen Transport to Surface Waters in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain

By Scott W. Ator, Judith M. Denver, Andrew E. LaMotte, and Andrew J. Sekellick

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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.

First posted January 30, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, MD-DE-DC Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
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Baltimore, MD 21228
(443) 498–5500

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Suggested citation:

Ator, S.W., Denver, J.M., LaMotte, A.E., and Sekellick, A.J., 2013, A regional classification of the effectiveness of depressional wetlands at mitigating nitrogen transport to surface waters in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5266, 23 p.




Study Area—The Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain


Classification and Description of Wetland Landscapes in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain

Applications and Limitations

Summary and Conclusions

Reference Cited


Reference Cited

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