Subsurface flow and vegetation patterns in tidal environments


Journal Article

Tidal environments are characterized by a complex interplay of hydrological, geomorphic, and biological processes, and their understanding and modeling thus require the explicit description of both their biotic and abiotic components. In particular, the presence and spatial distribution of salt marsh vegetation (a key factor in the stabilization of the surface soil) have been suggested to be related to topographic factors and to soil moisture patterns, but a general, process-based comprehension of this relationship has not yet been achieved. The present paper describes a finite element model of saturated-unsaturated subsurface flow in a schematic salt marsh, driven by tidal fluctuations and evapotranspiration. The conditions leading to the establishment of preferentially aerated subsurface zones are studied, and inferences regarding the development and spatial distribution of salt marsh vegetation are drawn, with important implications for the overall ecogeomorphological dynamics of tidal environments. Our results show that subsurface water flow in the marsh induces complex water table dynamics, even when the tidal forcing has a simple sinusoidal form. The definition of a space-dependent aeration time is then proposed to characterize root aeration. The model shows that salt marsh subsurface flow depends on the distance from the nearest creek or channel and that the subsurface water movement near tidal creeks is both vertical and horizontal, while farther from creeks, it is primarily vertical. Moreover, the study shows that if the soil saturated conductivity is relatively low (10-6 m s-1, values quite common in salt marsh areas), a persistently unsaturated zone is present below the soil surface even after the tide has flooded the marsh; this provides evidence of the presence of an aerated layer allowing a prolonged presence of oxygen for aerobic root respiration. The results further show that plant transpiration increases the extent and persistence of the aerated layer, thereby introducing a strong positive feedback: Pioneer plants on marsh edges have the effect of increasing soil oxygen availability, thus creating the conditions for the further development of other plant communities.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Ursino, N; Silvestri, S; Marani, M

Published Date

  • January 1, 2004

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 40 / 5

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0043-1397

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1029/2003WR002702

Citation Source

  • Scopus