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Scientists warn of considerable, rapid loss of salt marshes in the UK caused by rising sea levels
Leading an international study on the vulnerability of salt marshes in the United Kingdom (UK), scientists from the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) at Nanyang Technological University warn that the enhanced rates in sea-level rise are likely to destroy the marshlands found in the UK sooner than previously thought.
In a paper published in Nature Communications on 12 July 2018, the team led by Professor Benjamin Horton, Principal Investigator at EOS, found that rising sea levels from the past led to increased waterlogging of the salt marshes in the region, killing the vegetation that protects them from erosion. From the data extracted from 800 salt-marsh soil cores, the scientists estimate that by the year 2040, the marshes in the southeast of England will start to disappear.
“Salt marshes, also called coastal wetlands, are important because they provide vital ecosystem services,” said Prof Horton. “They act as a buffer against coastal storms to protect the mainland and a filter for pollutants to decontaminate our fresh water. Salt marshes are important transitional habitats between the ocean and the land, and a nursery area for fish, crustacea, and insects. So we will be losing an important biodiversity hotspot. The take-home point from this paper is how quickly we are going to lose these ecologically and economically important coastal areas in the 21st century.”
According to Professor Robert Kopp, Director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a co-author on the study, “By 2100, if we continue upon a high-emissions trajectory, essentially all British salt marshes will face a high risk of loss. Reducing emissions significantly increase the odds that salt marshes will survive.”
Co-author and Research Fellow at the Asian School of the Environment, Dr Timothy Shaw explained that “using an evidence-based approach, the study provides an indication of how marshes have responded to rates of sea-level change in the past and, in turn, how they may respond in the future.”
While this paper looks at salt marshes in the UK, the counterpart in tropical environments such as Singapore are mangroves, and mangroves are just as vulnerable to sea-level rise as salt marshes. “What is unknown is the tipping point that will cause a disintegration of mangroves to Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia,” said Prof Horton. “We are currently collecting data to address the future vulnerability of mangroves to sea-level rise.”
This study by the Earth Observatory of Singapore was done in collaboration with the Asian School of the Environment, Durham University, Delft University of Technology, University College Dublin, College of William and Mary, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and Rutgers University-Piscataway.
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Professor Benjamin Horton and colleagues in Scotland (Source: Ian Shennan/Durham University)