Marshes with and without sills protect estuarine shorelines from erosion better than bulkheads

Acting on the perception that they perform better for longer, most property owners in the United States choose hard engineered structures, such as bulkheads or riprap revetments, to protect estuarine shorelines from erosion. Less intrusive alternatives, specifically marsh plantings with and without sills, have the potential to better sustain marsh habitat and support its ecosystem services, yet their shoreline protection capabilities during storms have not been evaluated. In this study, the performances of alternative shoreline protection approaches during Hurricane Irene (Category 1 storm) were compared by 1) classifying resultant damage to shorelines with different types of shoreline protection in three NC coastal regions after Irene; and 2) quantifying shoreline erosion at marshes with and without sills in one NC region by using repeated measurements of marsh surface elevation and marsh vegetation stem density before and after Irene. In the central Outer Banks, NC, where the strongest sustained winds blew across the longest fetch; Irene damaged 76% of bulkheads surveyed, while no damage to other shoreline protection options was detected. Across marsh sites within 25 km of its landfall, Hurricane Irene had no effect on marsh surface elevations behind sills or long marsh shorelines without sills. Although Irene temporarily reduced marsh vegetation density at sites with and without sills, vegetation recovered to pre-hurricane levels within a year. Storm responses suggest that marshes with and without sills are more durable and may protect shorelines from erosion better than the bulkheads in a Category 1 storm. This study is the first to provide data on the shoreline protection capabilities of marshes with and without sills relative to bulkheads during a substantial storm event, and to articulate a research framework to assist in the development of comprehensive policies for climate change adaptation and sustainable management of estuarine shorelines and resources in U.S. and globally.

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