Will a rising sea sink some estuarine wetland ecosystems?
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Sea-level rise associatedwith climate change presents amajor challenge to plant diversity and ecosystemservice provision in coastal wetlands. In this study,we investigate the effect of sea-level rise on benthos, vegetation, and ecosystem diversity in a tidal wetland in westWales, the UK. Present relationships between plant communities and environmental variableswere investigated through 50 plots atwhich vegetation (species and coverage), hydrological (surface or groundwater depth, conductivity) and soil (matrix chroma, presence or absence ofmottles, organic content, particle size) data were collected. Benthic communities were sampled at intervals along a continuum from saline to freshwater. To ascertain future changes to the wetlands' hydrology, a GIS-based empirical model was developed. Using a LiDAR derived land surface, the relative effect of peat accumulation and rising sea levels were modelled over 200 years to determine how frequently portions of the wetland will be inundated by mean sea level, mean high water spring and mean high water neap conditions. The model takes into account changing extents of peat accumulation as hydrological conditions alter. Model results show that changes to the wetland hydrology will initially be slow. However, changes in frequency and extent of inundation reach a tipping point 125 to 175 years from2010 due to the extremely low slope of the wetland. From then onwards, large portions of the wetland become flooded at every flood tide and saltwater intrusion becomes more common. This will result in a reduction in marsh biodiversity with plant communities switching toward less diverse and occasionally monospecific communities that are more salt tolerant.