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Quantifying slopes as a driver of forest to marsh conversion using geospatial techniques: Application to Chesapeake Bay coastal-plain, USA

May 17, 2021

Coastal salt marshes, which provide valuable ecosystem services such as flood mitigation and carbon sequestration, are threatened by rising sea level. In response, these ecosystems migrate landward, converting available upland into salt marsh. In the coastal-plain surrounding Chesapeake Bay, United States, conversion of coastal forest to salt marsh is well-documented and may offset salt marsh loss due to sea level rise, sediment deficits, and wave erosion. Land slope at the marsh-forest boundary is an important factor determining migration likelihood, however, the standard method of using field measurements to assess slope across the marsh-forest boundary is impractical on the scale of an estuary. Therefore, we developed a general slope quantification method that uses high resolution elevation data and a repurposed shoreline analysis tool to determine slope along the marsh-forest boundary for the entire Chesapeake Bay coastal-plain and find that less than 3% of transects have a slope value less than 1%; these low slope environments offer more favorable conditions for forest to marsh conversion. Then, we combine the bay-wide slope and elevation data with inundation modeling from Hurricane Isabel to determine likelihood of coastal forest conversion to salt marsh. This method can be applied to local and estuary-scale research to support management decisions regarding which upland forested areas are more critical to preserve as available space for marsh migration.