IU environmental scientist part of team awarded NSF grant for tidal marsh study

  • Sept. 2, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A team that includes Indiana University environmental scientist Christopher Craft has been awarded a $665,000 National Science Foundation grant to study tidal marshes along the U.S. East Coast and their vulnerability to climate change, sea-level rise and other environmental forces.

The three-year grant will fund a study by researchers at IU, Villanova University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of South Carolina. A principal investigator, Craft is the Janet Duey Professor in Rural Land Policy in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“We’re going to be collecting data along the entire East Coast,” Craft said. “The goal is to develop an understanding of which of these wetlands are most at risk and which ones we don’t need to be so worried about.”

The project will examine relationships between land-use patterns in the Eastern U.S. over the past 100 years and the creation and loss of coastal marshes. It will make use of and seek to validate the Marsh Equilibrium Model, developed by James Morris of the University of South Carolina, with the goal of applying it on the Gulf and West coasts and elsewhere around the world.

Craft noted that marshes are dynamic ecosystems that provide essential environmental services. They remove pollutants and improve water quality. They serve as nurseries for commercially important finfish and shellfish. And they buffer property from tides, winds and storms.

The stability of coastal wetlands depends on interactions of sea level, plant growth and sediment supply. And those factors are subject to change, often because of human influence. For example, average sea levels have been rising about 2 millimeters per year, and marshes have sometimes kept up with that rise by trapping sediment with help from marsh vegetation.

“I like to say they’re keeping their heads above water,” Craft said.

But streams and rivers carry lower concentrations of suspended sediment than in the past as a result of changing land-use patterns, including reforestation in watersheds and dam construction. And any increase in sea-level rise associated with climate change could further destabilize marshes.

The researchers will collect core samples from marshes and establish past rates of sediment deposition by using radioactive dating techniques. By correlating that with data on historic rates of sea-level rise and changes in watershed land use, the researchers will be better able to identify which coastal marshes could be endangered and require protection and which are likely to remain robust.

While the environmental benefits of coastal marshes are significant, Craft points out that changes in coastal regions could have dramatic effects on people and the natural capital of ecosystems that sustain them.

“More than 50 percent of the global population lives in the coastal zones,” Craft said. “There are a lot of big cities in these areas. In a lot of these places, wetlands are not going to be able to migrate because hard structures, seawalls, groins and jetties restrict their ability to move inland, inhibiting their ability to protect property and people.”

The project develops from research Craft and colleagues have conducted at the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research site, established in 2000 as part of a National Science Foundation initiative to study long-term environmental processes on large geographic scales.

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Christopher Craft

Christopher Craft

Print-Quality Photo

This aerial photo shows a healthy tidal marsh where sediment and vegetation are keeping up with sea-level rise.

This aerial photo shows a healthy tidal marsh where sediment and vegetation are keeping up with sea-level rise.

Print-Quality Photo

This photo shows an unhealthy marsh that is destabilizing and breaking up.

This photo shows an unhealthy marsh that is destabilizing and breaking up.

Print-Quality Photo

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