Vegetation interactions with geotechnical properties and erodibility of salt marsh sediments
Salt marshes provide diverse ecosystem services including coastal protection, habitat provision and carbon sequestration. The loss of salt marshes is a global scale phenomenon, of great socio-economic concern due to the substantial benefits that they provide. However, the causes of spatial variability in marsh loss rates are inadequately understood for the purposes of predicting future ecosystem distributions and functions under global environmental change. This study investigated the relationship between the presence of different saltmarsh plants and the mechanical properties of the underlying substrate that relate to its vulnerability to erosion. Relationships between three halophytes (Puccinellia spp., Spartina spp. and Salicornia spp.) and sediment stability were assessed and compared to unvegetated substrates using in-situ and laboratory tests of substrate geotechnical properties and sediment characteristics. Sampling was conducted at two UK sites with contrasting sedimentology, one sand-dominated and one clay-rich. Sediment samples, collected simultaneously with measurements of shear strength, were analysed for moisture content, particle size and organic, carbonate and mineral compositions. These data were then used to explore the contribution of plant type, alongside the sedimentological parameters, to measured shear strength. Shear strength of the sediment varied between and, to a lesser extent, within sites, with the four cover types having a similar effect on shear strength within sites relative to each other. Sediments covered by Puccinellia spp exhibit the highest shear strength, while bare sediments exhibit the lowest. The effect of vegetation type on shear strength was greater in the coarser sediments of Warton Sands. Surface cover type made a significant contribution to exploratory statistical models developed for the prediction of sediment shear strength. The findings support existing recognition that vegetation can enhance sediment shear strengths but extend the insight to reveal differences in this effect that show generality between sedimentological settings. Further, the combination of methods provides insight into the fundamental mechanics by which various measures of sediment stability may be affected by different surface cover types. Cohesion appears to be a more appropriate descriptor of sediment erodibility than shear strength or friction angle and is most greatly enhanced by the presence of a fine, fibrous root system such as that of Puccinellia. A more detailed understanding of the multi-scale mechanisms by which plants confer strength to substrates is needed to better anticipate their impact on sediment erodibility, and therefore salt marsh vulnerability.
Authors: Evans, B.R. ORCID record for B.R. Evans, Brooks, H, Chirol, C., Kirkham, M.K., Möller, I., Royse, K., Spencer, K., Spencer, T.