Reevaluating the wave power-salt marsh retreat relationship

Feb 18, 2023

Author(s): L. J. Houttuijn Bloemendaal, D. M. FitzGerald, Z. J. Hughes, A. B. Novak

Salt marshes are threatened by rising sea levels and human activities, and a major mechanism of marsh loss is edge retreat or erosion. To understand and predict loss in these valuable ecosystems, studies have related erosion to marsh hydrodynamics and wave characteristics such as wave power. Across global studies, erosion is reported to be largely linearly related to wave power, with this relationship having implications for the resilience of marshes to extreme events such as storms. However, there is significant variability in this relationship across marshes because of marsh heterogeneity and the uniqueness of each physical setting. Here, we investigate the results of individual studies throughout the world that report a linear relationship and add a new dataset from the Great Marsh in Massachusetts (USA). We find that most marsh wave power and erosion data are not normally distributed and when these datasets are properly plotted to account for their distributions, the resulting relationships vary from previously published curves. Our Great Marsh data suggest that events from specific wind directions can have an outsized impact on edge erosion due to their larger fetch and wind speeds. We also find that factors other than wave attack such as edge erosion along tidal channels, can have a measurable impact on retreat rates. We show the importance of maintaining statistical assumptions when performing regressions, as well as emphasize the site-specificity of these relationships. Without calibration of a marsh erosion-wave power relationship using robust regressions for each individual marsh, such a relationship is not fully constrained, resulting in unreliable predictions of future marsh resilience and response to climate change. Paper here.