Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

A conterminous USA-scale map of relative tidal marsh elevation

January 31, 2022

Tidal wetlands provide myriad ecosystem services across local to global scales. With their uncertain vulnerability or resilience to rising sea levels, there is a need for mapping flooding drivers and vulnerability proxies for these ecosystems at a national scale. However, tidal wetlands in the conterminous USA are diverse with differing elevation gradients, and tidal amplitudes, making broad geographic comparisons difficult. To address this, a national-scale map of relative tidal elevation (Z*MHW), a physical metric that normalizes elevation to tidal amplitude at mean high water (MHW), was constructed for the first time at 30 × 30-m resolution spanning the conterminous USA. Contrary to two study hypotheses, watershed-level median Z*MHW and its variability generally increased from north to south as a function of tidal amplitude and relative sea-level rise. These trends were also observed in a reanalysis of ground elevation data from the Pacific Coast by Janousek et al. (Estuaries and Coasts 42 (1): 85–98, 2019). Supporting a third hypothesis, propagated uncertainty in Z*MHW increased from north to south as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) errors had an outsized effect under narrowing tidal amplitudes. The drivers of Z*MHW and its variability are difficult to determine because several potential causal variables are correlated with latitude, but future studies could investigate highest astronomical tide and diurnal high tide inequality as drivers of median Z*MHW and Z*MHW variability, respectively. Watersheds of the Gulf Coast often had propagated Z*MHW uncertainty greater than the tidal amplitude itself emphasizing the diminished practicality of applying Z*MHW as a flooding proxy to microtidal wetlands. Future studies could focus on validating and improving these physical map products and using them for synoptic modeling of tidal wetland carbon dynamics and sea-level rise vulnerability analyses.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title A conterminous USA-scale map of relative tidal marsh elevation
DOI 10.1007/s12237-021-01027-9
Authors James R. Holmquist, Lisamarie Windham-Myers
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Estuaries and Coasts
Series Number
Index ID 70227785
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Earth System Processes Division