Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Colonial-era erosion may have fueled wetland growth

Sid Perkins in Science Now: The salt marshes that rim the shores of Massachusetts's Plum Island estuary, which provide nesting grounds for numerous waterfowl and extremely productive spawning grounds for striped bass and soft-shell clams, have grown by 300 hectares in the last 300 years. That growth, according to a new study, was fueled by post-colonial deforestation and the erosion it caused in areas upstream. The findings suggests that efforts to maintain or restore salt marshes along the Eastern Seaboard, which have begun to disappear in recent years for a variety of reasons, may be preventing the wetlands from returning to their more natural sizes.

In the past century, wetlands in many regions have shrunk dramatically. San Francisco Bay lost about 20,000 hectares of wetlands during that period, and the Mississippi River delta lost 20 times that amount. Scientists have long presumed that the ongoing loss of wetlands in many areas of the world stems from influences such as rising sea levels and human development of coastal real estate. In many regions, dams both large and small also contribute to wetland degradation by interrupting the flow of sediment to the sea, thereby depriving the marshes of material that could accumulate and help counteract local erosion.

But in some areas, the 20th-century shrinkage of wetlands may simply be a return toward normal coverage, argue Matthew Kirwan, a geomorphologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Charlottesville, Virginia, and colleagues. They draw that conclusion from their study of the Plum Island estuary reported in the May issue of Geology. ….

Charles Harold Davis, "Twilight over Plum Island and the Parker River," 1887

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