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Large-scale erosion driven by intertidal eelgrass loss in an estuarine environment

July 26, 2020

Seagrasses influence local hydrodynamics by inducing drag on the flow and dampening near-bed velocities and wave energy. When seagrasses are lost, near-bed currents and wave energy can increase, which enhances bottom shear stresses, destabilizes sediment, and promotes suspension and erosion. Though seagrasses are being lost rapidly globally, the magnitude of change in sediment stabilization following ecosystem-wide eelgrass loss has rarely been measured. In this study, we explored the geomorphological changes associated with an unprecedented estuary-wide collapse of a seagrass (eelgrass, Zostera marina) in Morro Bay, CA, USA. Morro Bay has historically suffered from accelerated sedimentation and accretion. However, following massive eelgrass loss since 2010, over 90% of locations that previously had eelgrass experienced erosion. Elevation losses (erosion) reached 0.50 m in some places (mean loss of 0.10 m) with as much as a 50% decrease (median decrease of 13.6%) in elevation (i.e., increase in depth) compared to pre-decline levels. In comparison, the mouth of the estuary, where eelgrass was largely retained, had only 27.7% of the locations with prior eelgrass experiencing erosion and underwent a mean elevation increase (accretion) of 0.32 m. Thus, the loss of eelgrass appears to have altered dynamics at the seabed and transitioned large regions of the estuary from an environment that promotes deposition and accretion to one that promotes suspension and erosion. Large-scale erosion following seagrass loss may be predictive of future shoreline and coastal habitat changes and is likely to be exacerbated by increased storm surge and sea level rise expected with climate change.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Large-scale erosion driven by intertidal eelgrass loss in an estuarine environment
DOI 10.1016/j.ecss.2020.106910
Authors Ryan K. Walter, Jenifer K. O’Leary, Sean Vitousek, Mohsen Taherkhani, Carolyn Geraghty, Ann Kitajima
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science
Series Number
Index ID 70214087
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center