Vegetation engineers marsh morphology through multiple competing stable states.
Marshes display impressive biogeomorphic features, such as zonation, a mosaic of extensive vegetation patches of rather uniform composition, exhibiting sharp transitions in the presence of extremely small topographic gradients. Although generally associated with the accretion processes necessary for marshes to keep up with relative sea level rise, competing environmental constraints, and ecologic controls, zonation is still poorly understood in terms of the underlying biogeomorphic mechanisms. Here we find, through observations and modeling interpretation, that zonation is the result of coupled geomorphological-biological dynamics and that it stems from the ability of vegetation to actively engineer the landscape by tuning soil elevation within preferential ranges of optimal adaptation. We find multiple peaks in the frequency distribution of observed topographic elevation and identify them as the signature of biologic controls on geomorphodynamics through competing stable states modulated by the interplay of inorganic and organic deposition. Interestingly, the stable biogeomorphic equilibria correspond to suboptimal rates of biomass production, a result coherent with recent observations. The emerging biogeomorphic structures may display varying degrees of robustness to changes in the rate of sea level rise and sediment availability, with implications for the overall resilience of marsh ecosystems to climatic changes.
Marani, M; Da Lio, C; D'Alpaos, A
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