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Creators/Authors contains: "Kirwan, Matthew L."

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  1. Abstract

    Rising sea levels lead to the migration of salt marshes into coastal forests, thereby shifting both ecosystem composition and function. In this study, we investigate leaf litter decomposition, a critical component of forest carbon cycling, across the marsh-forest boundary with a focus on the potential influence of environmental gradients (i.e., temperature, light, moisture, salinity, and oxygen) on decomposition rates. To examine litter decomposition across these potentially competing co-occurring environmental gradients, we deployed litterbags within distinct forest health communities along the marsh-forest continuum and monitored decomposition rates over 6 months. Our results revealed that while the burial depth of litter enhanced decomposition within any individual forest zone by approximately 60% (decay rate = 0.272 ± 0.029 yr−1(surface), 0.450 ± 0.039 yr−1(buried)), we observed limited changes in decomposition rates across the marsh-forest boundary with only slightly enhanced decomposition in mid-forest soils that are being newly impacted by saltwater intrusion and shrub encroachment. The absence of linear changes in decomposition rates indicates non-linear interactions between the observed environmental gradients that maintain a consistent net rate of decomposition across the marsh-forest boundary. However, despite similar decomposition rates across the boundary, the accumulated soil litter layer disappears because leaf litter influx decreases from the absence of mature trees. Our finding that environmental gradients counteract expected decomposition trends could inform carbon-climate model projections and may be indicative of decomposition dynamics present in other transitioning ecosystem boundaries.

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  2. Marine transgression associated with rising sea levels causes coastal erosion, landscape transitions, and displacement of human populations globally. This process takes two general forms. Along open-ocean coasts, active transgression occurs when sediment-delivery rates are unable to keep pace with accommodation creation, leading to wave-driven erosion and/or landward translation of coastal landforms. It is highly visible, rapid, and limited to narrow portions of the coast. In contrast, passive transgression is subtler and slower, and impacts broader areas. It occurs along low-energy, inland marine margins; follows existing upland contours; and is characterized predominantly by the landward translation of coastal ecosystems. The nature and relative rates of transgression along these competing margins lead to expansion and/or contraction of the coastal zone and—particularly under the influence of anthropogenic interventions—will dictate future coastal-ecosystem response to sea-level rise, as well as attendant, often inequitable, impacts on human populations.

    Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Marine Science, Volume 16 is January 2024. Please see for revised estimates.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 3, 2025
  3. Abstract

    Landward migration of coastal ecosystems in response to sea-level rise is altering coastal carbon dynamics. Although such landscapes rapidly accumulate soil carbon, barrier-island migration jeopardizes long-term storage through burial and exposure of organic-rich backbarrier deposits along the lower beach and shoreface. Here, we quantify the carbon flux associated with the seaside erosion of backbarrier lagoon and peat deposits along the Virginia Atlantic Coast. Barrier transgression leads to the release of approximately 26.1 Gg of organic carbon annually. Recent (1994–2017 C.E.) erosion rates exceed annual soil carbon accumulation rates (1984–2020) in adjacent backbarrier ecosystems by approximately 30%. Additionally, shoreface erosion of thick lagoon sediments accounts for >80% of total carbon losses, despite containing lower carbon densities than overlying salt marsh peat. Together, these results emphasize the impermanence of carbon stored in coastal environments and suggest that existing landscape-scale carbon budgets may overstate the magnitude of the coastal carbon sink.

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  4. Abstract

    Ghost forests consisting of dead trees adjacent to marshes are striking indicators of climate change, and marsh migration into retreating coastal forests is a primary mechanism for marsh survival in the face of global sea‐level rise. Models of coastal transgression typically assume inundation of a static topography and instantaneous conversion of forest to marsh with rising seas. In contrast, here we use four decades of satellite observations to show that many low‐elevation forests along the US mid‐Atlantic coast have survived despite undergoing relative sea‐level rise rates (RSLRR) that are among the fastest on Earth. Lateral forest retreat rates were strongly mediated by topography and seawater salinity, but not directly explained by spatial variability in RSLRR, climate, or disturbance. The elevation of coastal tree lines shifted upslope at rates correlated with, but far less than, contemporary RSLRR. Together, these findings suggest a multi‐decadal lag between RSLRR and land conversion that implies coastal ecosystem resistance. Predictions based on instantaneous conversion of uplands to wetlands may therefore overestimate future land conversion in ways that challenge the timing of greenhouse gas fluxes and marsh creation, but also imply that the full effects of historical sea‐level rise have yet to be realized.

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  5. Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 1, 2024
  6. Coastal landscapes are naturally shifting mosaics of distinct ecosystems that are rapidly migratingwith sealevel rise. Previous work illustrates that transitions among individual ecosystems have disproportionate impacts on the global carbon cycle, but this cannot address nonlinear interactions between multiple ecosystems that potentially cascade across the coastal landscape. Here, we synthesize carbon stocks, accumulation rates, and regional land cover data over 36 years (1984 and 2020) for a variety of ecosystems across a large portion of the rapidly transgressing mid-Atlantic coast. The coastal landscape of the Virginia Eastern Shore consists of temperate forest, salt marsh, seagrass beds, barrier islands, and coastal lagoons. We found that rapid losses and gains within individual ecosystems largely offset each other, which resulted in relatively stable areas for the different ecosystems, and a 4% (196.9 Gg C) reduction in regional carbon storage. However, new metrics of carbon replacement times indicated that it would take only 7 years of carbon accumulation in surviving ecosystems to compensate this loss. Our findings reveal unique compensatory mechanisms at the scale of entire landscapes that quickly absorb losses and facilitate increased regional carbon storage in the face of historical and contemporary sea-level rise. However, the strength of these compensatory mechanisms may diminish as climate change exacerbates the magnitude of carbon losses. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 15, 2024
  7. Abstract

    The vulnerability of coastal environments to sea-level rise varies spatially, particularly due to local land subsidence. However, high-resolution observations and models of coastal subsidence are scarce, hindering an accurate vulnerability assessment. We use satellite data from 2007 to 2020 to create high-resolution map of subsidence rate at mm-level accuracy for different land covers along the ~3,500 km long US Atlantic coast. Here, we show that subsidence rate exceeding 3 mm per year affects most coastal areas, including wetlands, forests, agricultural areas, and developed regions. Coastal marshes represent the dominant land cover type along the US Atlantic coast and are particularly vulnerable to subsidence. We estimate that 58 to 100% of coastal marshes are losing elevation relative to sea level and show that previous studies substantially underestimate marsh vulnerability by not fully accounting for subsidence.

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  8. Coastal ecosystems represent a disproportionately large but vulnerable global carbon sink. Sea-level-driven tidal wetland degradation and upland forest mortality threaten coastal carbon pools, but responses of the broader coastal landscape to interacting facets of climate change remain poorly understood. Here, we use 36 years of satellite observations across the mid-Atlantic sea-level rise hotspot to show that climate change has actually increased the amount of carbon stored in the biomass of coastal ecosystems despite substantial areal loss. We find that sea-level-driven reductions in wetland and low-lying forest biomass were largely confined to areas less than 2 m above sea level, whereas the otherwise warmer and wetter climate led to an increase in the biomass of adjacent upland forests. Integrated across the entire coastal landscape, climate-driven upland greening offset sea-level-driven biomass losses, such that the net impact of climate change was to increase the amount of carbon stored in coastal vegetation. These results point to a fundamental decoupling between upland and wetland carbon trends that can only be understood by integrating observations across traditional ecosystem boundaries. This holistic approach may provide a template for quantifying carbon–climate feedbacks and other aspects of coastal change that extend beyond sea-level rise alone. 
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