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Statewide summary for Alabama

January 1, 2013

Alabama is over 132,000 km2 (51,000 miles2) in area, 483 km (300 miles) long, and 322 km (200 miles) wide (Copeland, 1968). Coastal Alabama comprises Mobile and Baldwin Counties and the surrounding State waters in the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 1; O’Neil and Mettee, 1982). It is part of both the East Gulf Coastal Plain section of the Coastal Plain province and the Mississippi-Alabama shelf section of the Continental Shelf province. Within the East Gulf Coastal Plain section, Alabama’s coastal land falls within the Southern Pine Hills and Coastal Lowlands subdivisions. The Southern Pine Hills subdivision is a sloping landscape composed of sand and clay. Its elevation varies from approximately 30 m (98 ft) near the coast to over 90 m (295 ft) in the northern areas of the two coastal counties. The Coastal Lowlands subdivision is a flat to slightly undulating plain with creeks, rivers, estuaries, and marshes leading to the surrounding bays and the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore Alabama is part of the Mississippi-Alabama section of the Continental Shelf. Barrier islands and spits in coastal Alabama include Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan Peninsula, and Perdido Key. Dauphin Island consists of a beach with dunes on the Gulf side and beaches and marshes on the north side. It was once over 24 km long, but after Hurricane Katrina it has been broken into two distinct islands. Fort Morgan Peninsula is attached to the eastern mainland and extends westward between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. A large beach exists on the gulf side, with numerous lagoons and marshes on the bayside. Perdido Key is a narrow peninsula on the easternmost Alabama coast near the Alabama-Florida border, south of Perdido Bay. It consists of beaches and high dunes, with some marshes on the lagoon side of the peninsula.

Mobile Bay, parts of Mississippi Sound, Perdido Bay, and many smaller rivers and streams are the main bodies of water in coastal Alabama. Mobile Bay, a submerged river valley, is the largest at 1,070 km2 (413 miles2) in area and 51.5 km (32 miles) in length (Mobile Bay NEP, 2008). Mobile Bay is 37 km (23 miles) wide at its maximum width near the opening to the Gulf of Mexico at the south end of the bay, and 16.1 km (10 miles) wide at the city of Mobile (Mobile Bay NEP, 2003; Mobile Bay NEP, 2008). It is remarkably shallow with an average depth of 3 m (10 ft), yet it discharges approximately 1,755.6 m3 (62,000 ft3) of water every second on average (Mobile Bay NEP, 2008). Mississippi Sound runs parallel to the coasts of Mississippi and part of Alabama. The length of the Alabama portion of Mississippi Sound is approximately 26 km (16.2 miles) from the Dauphin Island bridge to the Mississippi-Alabama State line (O’Neil and Mettee, 1982). Dauphin Island separates the sound from the Gulf of Mexico. The sound drains into the Gulf of Mexico west of Dauphin Island at Petit Bois Pass, which is approximately 8 km (5 miles) wide. Mississippi Sound averages approximately 3.5 m (11.5 ft) in depth. Salt marshes, large areas of wetland scrub-shrub, and tidal creeks characterize the northern shore of Mississippi Sound, and the southern shore is composed of sandy barrier islands. Perdido Bay is located at the boundary of Baldwin County and Florida’s Escambia County. It is approximately 27 km (16.8 miles) long, 5 km (3 miles) at its widest point, and, on average, 2.4 m (7.9 ft) deep. The major fresh-water resource in coastal Alabama is the Mobile River, formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers. The watershed for the Mobile River is approximately 111,369 km2 (43,000 miles2) large and includes parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee (Handley et al., 2007). Parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle drain into the Perdido River basin and western coastal Alabama drains into the Escatawpa River. 

Emergent wetlands offer valuable ecological services in coastal Alabama. Marshes provide extensive plant material, which provides energy to the detritus-based estuarine ecological system (O’Neil et al., 1983). They provide habitat for many organisms, including shrimp and crabs, whose harvest is a major industry in coastal Alabama. Marshes provide habitat for refuge, feeding, breeding, and spawning. They also remove excess nutrients from water and contribute to erosion control. Degradation of marshes by pollutants, sediments, and other impacts decreases productivity of the entire estuarine ecosystem. Among the nation’s states, Alabama ranks fifth in number of different species (144 endemic species), second in number of extinctions that have already occurred (90 extinct species) and fourth in number of species at risk for extinction (14.8% at risk out of 4,533 total species; Stein, 2002). Many species of wildlife benefit from the wetland habitats in coastal Alabama. Numerous bird species can be found in coastal Alabama emergent marshes, which provide habitat for shore- and wading-birds that inhabit salt or brackish water coastal environments (Anderson et al., 1981). Colonial seabirds nest on coastal Alabama’s islands, the mainland, and dredge disposal sites (Cooley, 1987). The Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Mobile Bay are the state’s primary migratory waterfowl coastal wintering areas (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1982). The shallow waters, abundance of fish, and vegetative cover in emergent marsh contribute to excellent waterfowl habitat. Emergent wetlands in Alabama also provide habitat for a multitude of endangered species, including various species of raptors and wading- and shorebirds (O’Neil et al., 1983). 

Publication Year 2013
Title Statewide summary for Alabama
Authors Lawrence R. Handley, Kathryn A. Spear, Stephen Jones, Cindy A. Thatcher
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70041783
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Wetlands Research Center