Image_2_Saltmarsh Resilience to Periodic Shifts in Tidal Channels.jpg
Resilience of coastal ecosystems to climate change is largely determined by the interaction between plants and the surrounding tidal environment. Research has tended to focus on processes operating at the local scale to explain resilience mechanisms, overlooking potentially important landscape-scale processes and patterns. We show from aerial images spanning 67 years across 3 estuaries that saltmarsh loss was compensated by expansion elsewhere in the estuary when tidal channels shifted position. Compensatory expansion rates were as high as 6 m/yr. This phenomenon of “geomorphic compensation” represents a hitherto overlooked large-scale self-organizing pattern that facilitates the long-term persistence of marshes in estuaries. The geomorphic compensation pattern likely also occurs in other hydrological systems including mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows, and river islands. Compensatory erosion-expansion patterns occurred at the same time as net marsh extent increased by between 120 and 235% across all three estuaries. Marsh expansion mostly occurred in the lower parts of each estuary, where channel migration and compensatory expansion was less evident. Patterns of geomorphic compensation therefore appear to operate at discrete spatio-temporal scales, nested within a hierarchy of coastal morphodynamic processes that govern longer-term patterns of either net marsh gain or loss. Coastal ecosystem resilience can therefore only be fully appreciated when examining erosion and expansion patterns at both local and landscape scales. The intrinsic dynamics of marshes described here have important implications for the long-term delivery of ecosystem services.