1. Ecogeomorphic feedbacks between mineral sediment deposition and above-ground plant growth are thought to have dominated the evolution of many coastal ecosystems and landforms. However, land-use-related reductions in sediment delivery rates to estuaries world-wide suggest that these above-ground feedbacks may not apply in some of the world’s most vulnerable coastal landscapes.
2. To understand the relationships between sea level rise and marsh survival, we measured root and shoot growth over experimentally manipulated elevations in a rapidly submerging, sediment deficient marsh.
3. Root growth was highest at a distinct optimum elevation in both Schoenoplectus americanus and Spartina patens. S. americanus shoot growth was highest at an optimum elevation, but S. patens shoot growth increased with elevation throughout the intertidal zone.
4. For marsh elevations that are higher than optimum (expected at low sea level rise rates), we propose that an acceleration in the rate of sea level rise will lead to enhanced root growth, organic accretion and wetland stability. For suboptimum marsh elevations (expected at rapid sea level rise rates and/or low sediment supply), increases in the water level will lead to reduced root growth and a decrease in the rate of elevation gain.
5. More than 80% of the marshland in our study area has an elevation below the optimum for root growth, suggesting that this previously unknown feedback could explain observations of rapid marsh deterioration in the region.
6.Synthesis. Below-ground responses of marshes to sea level rise are more broadly applicable than above-ground feedbacks because they are consistent among different species and do not depend on the availability of mineral sediment.