Research ArticleOCEANOGRAPHY

Tipping points of Mississippi Delta marshes due to accelerated sea-level rise

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Science Advances  22 May 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 21, eaaz5512
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz5512


Coastal marshes are threatened by relative sea-level (RSL) rise, yet recent studies predict marsh survival even under the high rates of RSL rise expected later in this century. However, because these studies are mostly based on short-term records, uncertainty persists about the longer-term vulnerability of coastal marshes. We present an 8500-year-long marsh record from the Mississippi Delta, showing that at rates of RSL rise exceeding 6 to 9 mm year−1, marsh conversion into open water occurs in about 50 years. At rates of RSL rise exceeding ~3 mm year−1, marsh drowning occurs within a few centuries. Because present-day rates of global sea-level rise already surpass this rate, submergence of the remaining ~15,000 km2 of marshland in coastal Louisiana is probably inevitable. RSL-driven tipping points for marsh drowning vary geographically, and those for the Mississippi Delta may be lower than elsewhere. Nevertheless, our findings highlight the need for consideration of longer time windows in determining the vulnerability of coastal marshes worldwide.

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