Accretion, compaction, and restoration: Sediment dynamics and relative sea-level rise in coastal wetlands
Over the past two centuries, coastal wetlands have become increasingly threatened by accelerated relative sea-level rise and anthropogenic modification. Engineered structures such as sea walls, levees, and drainage systems prevent natural processes of sediment distribution, reducing the resilience of coastal ecosystems. Land subsidence and shoreline erosion combine with global sea-level rise to make low-elevation coastal zones increasingly vulnerable to submergence. This dissertation examines processes of sediment accumulation, compaction, and relative sea-level rise in coastal wetlands and assesses strategies for restoration. I find that organic content strongly controls sediment compaction in wetland sediments. At least 80% of compaction happens quickly, largely within the first 100 years after deposition and in the top 1 m of the subsurface. This rapid shallow compaction is generally not recorded by traditional methods of measuring relative sea-level rise in low-elevation coastal zones (i.e., tide gauges and global navigation satellite systems). As a result, tide gauges generally underestimate rates of relative sea-level rise in low-elevation coastal zones and these areas may be at a greater risk of flooding than previously realized. However, despite accelerated rates of relative sea-level rise and rapid sediment compaction, coastal restoration efforts such as river diversions can be successful in building new land in some areas. I find that sediment deposition responds non-linearly to water discharge, reaching a maximum at moderate discharge. Wetlands are more likely to keep up with relative sea-level rise if hydrodynamic conditions are optimized to retain mineral sediment in targeted restoration areas.