Vegetation succession of low estuarine marshes is affected by distance to navigation channel and changes in water level

Christian Butzeck (Lead Author), Uwe Schröder, Jens Oldeland, Stefanie Nolte, Kai Jensen

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6 Citations (Scopus)


Climate change and engineering activities have modified the hydrology and morphology of estuaries. However, the potential effects of these modifications on vegetation succession in estuarine marshes are still poorly understood. Therefore, we studied temporal changes in tidal habitats of the Elbe estuary over a period of 30 years. We compared vegetation maps from 1980 to 2010 and calculated the change in area of habitats with respect to three salinity and three elevational zones. To analyze the direction of the temporal change, we differentiated between progressive and regressive succession. By using regression tree models (conditional inference trees), we identified the most influential factors determining progressive or regressive succession of low marshes. The total area of the estuarine tidal marshes at the Elbe increased by 2 % from 1980 to 2010, but changes were unequal among the salinity zones. In the salt and brackish zones, the area covered by high marshes increased substantially but decreased in the tidal freshwater zone, while that covered by low marshes decreased in all the salinity zones. Additionally, we determined high persistence of tidal flats and high marshes, whereas only 19 to 28 % of the low marshes found in 1980 remained in 2010. In salt and brackish marshes, more than two-thirds of the area that had been identified as low marshes in 1980 had progressively developed into high marshes. In contrast, 44 % of the area of low marshes in tidal freshwater marshes showed regressive succession back into tidal flats. The distance to the navigation channel was the main factor determining successional direction in salt and brackish marshes. Here, greater proximity to the channel was correlated with higher risk of regressive succession. In tidal freshwater marshes, we identified both the distance to the navigation channel and the situation on the river shore (i.e. inner bank, outer bank or straight bank) as the main factors for marsh succession. Here, considerable engineering activities in the channel had simultaneously decreased the mean low water level and increased the mean high water level between 1980 and 2010, which led to an increase in tidal amplitude. It is quite likely that these changes negatively modified marsh distribution, increased regressive succession and, thus, lowered the quality of tidal freshwater marshes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-236
JournalJournal of Coastal Conservation
Issue number3
Early online date1 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes

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