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NCCOS Research Project

Understanding and Predicting Changes in Coastal Marsh Ecosystem Services: Realizing the Combined Effects of Sea Level Rise, Tides, and Storm Surge on Marshes and their Capacity to Protect Shorelines

Primary Contact(s): david.kidwell@noaa.gov
This project began in September 2016 and is projected to be completed in August 2019

We are developing marsh conservation and restoration guidance for the central coastal region of North Carolina from eight years of yet unpublished, continuous water-level data combined with field measurements of site topography and plant distribution. These data will allow us to predict the extent and condition of marsh habitat over 1–50 years under multiple scenarios of sea level rise, storm frequency, and storm intensity.

Why We Care
Coastal populations and assets are increasingly at risk from sea level rise, storms, and nuisance flooding events. Coastal marshes are increasingly recognized for their ability to decrease the level of storm energy and flooding that reaches upland areas, protecting property and infrastructure. Additionally, coastal marshes provide forage and refuge habitat for wildlife, water pollution extraction, and support food production.

The ability of coastal marshes to persist and deliver ecosystem services depends on whether they can accrete sediment and rise vertically at a speed to match sea level rise. Without understanding the future of our coastal marshes and what improves marsh survival, coastal managers cannot plan for, or mitigate, the risks sea level rise incurs on our coastal communities.

What We Are Doing
We are working to improve both scientific and public understanding of the capacity of coastal marshes to prevent coastal flooding, especially during storms, when this ecosystem service is most important. Specifically, we are developing models that predict changes in the ecosystem services (e.g., flood protection) provided by coastal marshes within the North Carolina Sentinel Site Cooperative in the central coastal region of North Carolina.

Our models will consider multiple inundation scenarios caused by a combination of rising sea level and increasingly energetic storms. The study will quantify and model wave attenuation in marshes based on differing marsh configurations, conditions, and type. We will expand site relevance by collecting new water level information at new sites with differing marsh conditions within the NC SSC boundary, while also relying on an eight-year data set to evaluate storm surge during five tropical storms that occurred and five nor’easter storms that occurred, to ensure storm data is available. The models will simulate wave attenuation capabilities under current conditions, as well as consider changes in the types of marsh plants present and the future extent of coastal marshes.

These models form a tool that will allow quantification of varying storm impacts on coastal marshes and the capacity of coastal marshes to reduce storm energy under current and future conditions (10 and 50 years). Overall, this project will result in a tool that will allow coastal managers to demonstrate the ability of coastal marshes to protect coastlines and reduce or prevent erosion.

The project will also provide outreach to the public by extending the King Tides International Project to North Carolina. At the end of the project, stakeholder groups, regional businesses, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations in North Carolina will be engaged to discuss the challenges resulting from sea level rise and increasing storms. The findings of this project will spur discussions of the mitigation and planning options available.

The project is led by the University of North Carolina and is funded through the Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (EESLR) Program.

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources, in direct support of NOS priorities, offices, and customers, and to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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