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Salt Marshes Help Keep Us Above Water

A salt marsh on Plum Island, Mass.
S. Bond
A salt marsh on Plum Island, Mass.

We’ve learned recently from scientists at Umass Amherst that New England will probably experience more warming than the rest of the planet in the near future.

Along the northern East Coast, sea level has risen an average of four millimeters a year and is expected to increase.  On Cape Cod, our salt marshes may be the difference between towns going underwater and staying dry. They provide a remarkably effective barrier against storms and erosion.

Anne Giblin, interim director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory, has been looking at how salt marshes on Plum Island keep their heads above water in an environment in which they don’t get a lot of sediments from rivers. (The same is true on Cape Cod.)

In this kind of environment, the marsh builds itself up with organic matter produced by the marsh itself. Giblin and others have found that marshes migrate inland when faced with rising seas. But marshes are often hemmed in by development and roads, leaving towns with few options for preserving them as the oceans rise. Thus, Giblin says it’s important to keep marshes healthy where we can.

“I think that if you looked at all the services marshes provide, coastal fisheries…birds… in addition to the storm protection, I think you would have trouble justifying letting them go away as an economic choice,” she said.