DOI: 10.1029/2023jg007525 ISSN: 2169-8953

Biophysical Drivers of Coastal Treeline Elevation

G. D. Molino, J. A. Carr, N. K. Ganju, M. L. Kirwan
  • Paleontology
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Soil Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Forestry


Sea level rise is leading to the rapid migration of marshes into coastal forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. Although complex biophysical interactions likely govern these ecosystem transitions, projections of sea level driven land conversion commonly rely on a simplified “threshold elevation” that represents the elevation of the marsh‐upland boundary based on tidal datums alone. To determine the influence of biophysical drivers on threshold elevations, and their implication for land conversion, we examined almost 100,000 high‐resolution marsh‐forest boundary elevation points, determined independently from tidal datums, alongside hydrologic, ecologic, and geomorphic data in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S. located along the mid‐Atlantic coast. We find five‐fold variations in threshold elevation across the entire estuary, driven not only by tidal range, but also salinity and slope. However, more than half of the variability is unexplained by these variables, which we attribute largely to uncaptured local factors including groundwater discharge, microtopography, and anthropogenic impacts. In the Chesapeake Bay, observed threshold elevations deviate from predicted elevations used to determine sea level driven land conversion by as much as the amount of projected regional sea level rise by 2050. These results suggest that local drivers strongly mediate coastal ecosystem transitions, and that predictions based on elevation and tidal datums alone may misrepresent future land conversion.

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