Abstract

We present high-resolution field measurements of five sites along the United States Atlantic Coast, and cellular automata simulations, to investigate the erosion of marsh boundaries by wave action. According to our analysis, when salt marshes are exposed to high wave energy conditions their boundaries erode uniformly. The resulting erosion events follow a Gaussian distribution, yielding a relatively smooth shoreline. On the contrary, when wind waves are weak and the local marsh resistance is strong, jagged marsh boundaries form. In this case, erosion episodes have a long-tailed frequency magnitude distribution with numerous low-magnitude events, but also high-magnitude episodes. The logarithmic frequency magnitude distribution suggests the emergence of a critical state for marsh boundaries, which would make the prediction of failure events impossible. Internal physical processes allowing salt marshes to reach this critical state are geotechnical and biological, and related to the nonhomogeneity of salt marshes whose material discontinuities act as stress raisers.

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