Assessing Tidal Marsh Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise in the Skagit Delta
W. Gregory Hood, Eric E. Grossman and Curt Veldhuisen
Historical aerial photographs, from 1937 to the present, show Skagit Delta tidal marshes prograding into Skagit Bay for most of the record, but the progradation rates have been steadily declining and the marshes have begun to erode in recent decades despite the large suspended sediment load provided by the Skagit River. In an area of the delta isolated from direct riverine sediment supply by anthropogenic blockage of historical distributaries, 0.5-m tall marsh cliffs along with concave marsh profiles indicate wave erosion is contributing to marsh retreat. This is further supported by a “natural experiment” provided by rocky outcrops that shelter high marsh in their lee, while being bounded by 0.5-m lower eroded marsh to windward and on either side. Coastal wetlands with high sediment supply are thought to be resilient to sea level rise, but the case of the Skagit Delta shows this is not necessarily true. A combination of sea level rise and wave-generated erosion may overwhelm sediment supply. Additionally, anthropogenic obstruction of historical distributaries and levee construction along the remaining distributaries likely increase the jet momentum of river discharge, forcing much suspended sediment to bypass the tidal marshes and be exported from Skagit Bay. Adaptive response to the threat of climate change related sea level rise and increased wave frequency or intensity should consider the efficacy of restoring historical distributaries and managed retreat of constrictive river levees to maximize sediment delivery to delta marshes.