Salt marsh vegetation promotes efficient tidal channel networks

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 5:15 PM
William Sheppard Kearney and Sergio Fagherazzi, Boston University, Boston, MA, United States
Tidal channel networks mediate the exchange of water, nutrients and sediment between an estuary and marshes and mudflats. Biology feeds back into channel morphodynamics through vegetation's influence on the cohesive strength of channel banks. Understanding the morphology of a tidal channel network is thus essential to understanding both the biological functioning of intertidal ecosystems and the topographic signature of life. A critical measure of the morphology of a channel network is the unchanneled path length, which is characteristic of the efficiency with which a network dissects the marsh platform. However, the processes which control the formation and maintenance of an efficient tidal channel network remain unclear. Here we show that an unvegetated marsh platform (Estero La Ramada, Baja California, Mexico) is dissected by a less efficient channel network than a vegetated one (Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States). The difference in geometric efficiency reflects a difference in the branching and meandering characteristics of the network, characteristics controlled by the density of vegetation on the channel banks. Our results suggest a feedback between network geometry and vegetation, mediated by fluxes of nutrients and salinity through the channel network, maintains the observed network geometries. An efficient network can support a denser vegetation community which stabilizes channel banks, leading to an efficient meandering geometry.