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Can the Salt Marsh Keep Up with Rising Sea Level? Measuring the Carbon Cycle Could Provide the Answer

Rita Oliveira Monteiro

Colin Millar of the Ecosystems Center checks the tower that will measure the vertical exchange of CO2 between the marsh and atmosphere at the Plum Island LTER marsh. Helping him set up the system are Catherine Caruso of the center, REU intern Brittany Boyke of Louisiana State University, and Sam Kelsey of the center. (Photo: Inke Forbrich)

A seven-meter high tower in the middle of the salt marsh at the Plum Island Long Term Ecological Research site in northern Massachusetts will measure the exchange of carbon dioxide (CO2) between the marsh and the atmosphere. It may also provide scientists with important information about how salt marshes respond to sea level rise and how well the salt marsh ecosystem - an important boundary between land and ocean - will be able to protect coastal inhabitants against storms and floods.

A group of Ecosystems Center scientists led by senior scientist Anne Giblin amd postdoctoral scientist Inke Forbrich have set up the new measurement system. Dr. Forbrich explains that the marshes' "short term dynamics in carbon exchange are influenced by the tides but the long-term stability of marshes depends on how sea level influences both primary production and sediment accretion." Sea level is predicted to increase, and the scientists are interested in how these changes affect the salt marsh ecosystem. "The major question here is whether the marsh can keep up with a rising sea level by both sedimentation and peat accumulation. Since previous studies have shown that the sedimentation at Plum Island is relatively low, the scientists will have a closer look on the carbon cycling in the salt marsh," she said.

The new measurement system is going to measure the vertical exchange of CO2 between the marsh and the atmosphere. Salt marsh ecosystems are among the most productive systems worldwide and these data will help to understand and quantify the ecosystem carbon uptake and release. Using additional measurements of the lateral exchange of organic matter in the tidal creeks (in cooperation with Peter Raymond and Yong Zhao from Yale University) the scientists aim at quantifying the ecosystem carbon budget in this highly dynamic ecosystem.