Modeling Channelization in Coastal Wetlands with Ecological Feedbacks

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Amala Mahadevan1, Zoe J Hughes2, Steven Pennings3 and Duncan FitzGerald2, (1)Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, United States, (2)Boston University, Boston, MA, United States, (3)University of Houston, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, Houston, TX, United States
In coastal wetlands in Georgia and South Carolina, dendritic channel networks are actively incising headward at the rate of nearly 2 m/yr. The future geomorphic evolution of these marshes remains in question as rates of relative sea-level rise increase. Our objective is to understand the mechanisms that lead to the evolution of these channel networks through field observations and modeling. We model the geomorphological evolution of tidal creeks by viewing the wetland as a permeable medium. The porosity of the medium affects its hydraulic conductivity, which in turn is altered by erosion. Our multiphase model spontaneously generates channelization and branching networks through flow and erosion. In our field studies, we find that crabs play an active role in grazing vegetation and in the bioturbation of sediments. These effects are incorporated in our model based on field and laboratory observations of crab behavior and its effects on the marsh. We find the erosional patterns and channelization are significantly altered by the faunal feedback. Crabs enhance the growth of channels, inducing the headward erosion of creeks where flow-induced stresses are weakest. They are instrumental in generating high rates of creek extension, which channelize the marsh more effectively in response to sea-level rise. This indicates that the evolution of coastal wetlands is responding to interactions between physics and ecology and highlights the importance of the faunal contribution to these feedbacks.