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Predicting the retreat and migration of tidal forests along the northern Gulf of Mexico under sea-level rise

January 1, 2010

Tidal freshwater forests in coastal regions of the southeastern United States are undergoing dieback and retreat from increasing tidal inundation and saltwater intrusion attributed to climate variability and sea-level rise. In many areas, tidal saltwater forests (mangroves) contrastingly are expanding landward in subtropical coastal reaches succeeding freshwater marsh and forest zones. Hydrological characteristics of these low-relief coastal forests in intertidal settings are dictated by the influence of tidal and freshwater forcing. In this paper, we describe the application of the Sea Level Over Proportional Elevation (SLOPE) model to predict coastal forest retreat and migration from projected sea-level rise based on a proxy relationship of saltmarsh/mangrove area and tidal range. The SLOPE model assumes that the sum area of saltmarsh/mangrove habitat along any given coastal reach is determined by the slope of the landform and vertical tide forcing. Model results indicated that saltmarsh and mangrove migration from sea-level rise will vary by county and watershed but greater in western Gulf States than in the eastern Gulf States where millions of hectares of coastal forest will be displaced over the next century with a near meter rise in relative sea level alone. Substantial losses of coastal forests will also occur in the eastern Gulf but mangrove forests in subtropical zones of Florida are expected to replace retreating freshwater forest and affect regional biodiversity. Accelerated global eustacy from climate change will compound the degree of predicted retreat and migration of coastal forests with expected implications for ecosystem management of State and Federal lands in the absence of adaptive coastal management.