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Coastal Marshes and Rising Sea Levels

Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

Twenty years of VCR research has revealed how the response of marshes to sea-level rise varies depending on vegetation type, landscape position, and sensitivity to disturbance. Understanding this variation is critical to predicting how sea-level rise will affect the diversity of waterbirds, marine invertebrates, and fin fishes that depend on marshland habitats.

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Predicting Change

Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

Long-term studies show that two simple environmental factors, distance from the shoreline and elevation above sea level, determine patterns in barrier island vegetation. VCR scientists are using this knowledge to forecast climate change effects on these fragile coastal landscapes.

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Regional Shoreline Change

Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

Researchers at the VCR discovered that long-term changes in the positions of barrier island shorelines follow remarkably similar patterns across the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast, suggesting controls by common regional factors. The last major shift in shoreline trends, for example, dates back to 1967 and coincides with an increase in the frequency and severity of coastal storms.

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Importance of Bottom Dwellers

Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

VCR scientists discovered that bottom-dwelling plants and microbes control nutrient cycling in shallow coastal bays, contrary to expectations. This discovery is helping scientists better predict how land-use change and eutrophication will impact these vulnerable ecosystems and the important fisheries and marine biodiversity they support.

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Dynamic Coastal Landscapes

Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

By tracking long-term shifts in land cover on undeveloped coastal barrier ecosystems, VCR scientists have learned how sea-level rise and storms interact to create a highly dynamic landscape. While the locations of lagoons, marshes, and barrier islands have changed over time, they have not experienced significant net reductions in the area they cover.