The present and future role of coastal wetland vegetation in protecting shorelines: answering recent challenges to the paradigm

Gedan, K.B. et al. | Climatic Change | 2011 | Peer Reviewed | Meta-analysis |


For more than a century, coastal wetlands have been recognized for their ability to stabilize shorelines and protect coastal communities. However, this paradigm has recently been called into question by small-scale experimental evidence. Here, we conduct a literature review and a small meta-analysis of wave attenuation data, and we find overwhelming evidence in support of established theory. Our review suggests that mangrove and salt marsh vegetation afford context-dependent protection from erosion, storm surge, and potentially small tsunami waves. In bio-physical models, field tests, and natural experiments, the presence of wetlands reduces wave heights, property damage, and human deaths. Meta-analysis of wave attenuation by vegetated and unvegetated wetland sites highlights the critical role of vegetation in attenuating waves. Although we find coastal wetland vegetation to be an effective shoreline buffer, wetlands cannot protect shorelines in all locations or scenarios; indeed large-scale regional erosion, river meandering, and large tsunami waves and storm surges can overwhelm the attenuation effect of vegetation. However, due to a nonlinear relationship between wave attenuation and wetland size, even small wetlands afford substantial protection from waves. Combining man-made structures with wetlands in ways that mimic nature is likely to increase coastal protection. Oyster domes, for example, can be used in combination with natural wetlands to protect shorelines and restore critical fishery habitat. Finally, coastal wetland vegetation modifies shorelines in ways (e.g. peat accretion) that increase shoreline integrity over long timescales and thus provides a lasting coastal adaptation measure that can protect shorelines against accelerated sea level rise and more frequent storm inundation. We conclude that the shoreline protection paradigm still stands, but that gaps remain in our knowledge about the mechanistic and context-dependent aspects of shoreline protection.