Unravelling the controls of lateral expansion and elevation change of pioneer tidal marshes

Alexandra Silinski*, Erik Fransen, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Patrick Meire, Stijn Temmerman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Many overlapping mechanisms have been proposed to control horizontal seaward expansion of marshes and rates of elevation change that are associated with it. Key questions to resolve are: i) whether simple geomorphological conditions such as elevation are a reliable predictor of marsh expansion rates; ii) whether there are seasonal vegetation-induced effects on elevation change (both, increase and decrease of elevation); and iii) how steep the spatial gradient of elevation change is from the bare tidal flat into the vegetated marsh? These questions have been addressed with a two-scale study approach performed on two contrastingly wave-exposed marshes in the Scheldt Estuary (SW Netherlands and N Belgium) where Scirpus maritimus is the dominant pioneer species. On the one hand, we investigated the relations between large-scale, geomorphological parameters (elevation, slope) and clonal marsh expansion rates at both sites. On the other hand, we performed a small-scale monthly field monitoring over two years at the same two marshes where we investigated the relations between spatio-temporal variations in vertical elevation change and spatio-temporal variations in vegetation properties along cross-shore transects. We found that at the sheltered site, clonal expansion rates are almost twice as high as at the exposed site. Furthermore, expansion rates at the sheltered site related well to elevation. At the exposed site, this relation was less strong as wave exposure might cause a dominant disturbance. Moreover, we found clear seasonal elevation change patterns that closely followed the seasonal vegetation cycle, with prevailing increase in elevation in summer when above-ground biomass was maximal and decrease in elevation in winter when plant shoots had largely decayed. Especially at the exposed site, the presence of vegetation has a positive effect on increase in elevation within the marsh. Finally, our results show that clonal marsh expansion succeeded at elevations for which previous studies at the same locations showed that individual shoots could not establish, emphasising the importance of clonal integration for both survival and lateral expansion in disturbance-driven ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106-115
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


  • Clonal integration
  • Clonal marsh expansion
  • Elevation change
  • Wave exposure


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