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Salt marshes further contribute to coastal protection

According to a new study, salt marshes in front of the dykes can dampen the energy of waves even under changing climatic conditions and thus make a valuable contribution to coastal protection.

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Salt marshes further contribute to coastal protection

According to a new study, salt marshes in front of the dykes can dampen the energy of waves even under changing climatic conditions and thus make a valuable contribution to coastal protection. In the study recently published in the scientific journal "Scientific Reports", researchers from Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein came to the conclusion that higher water temperatures and a higher CO₂ content in the water as a result of climate change have no negative effects on the wave-dampening function of two important salt marsh plant species.

Salt marshes on the North Sea coast serve as a buffer zone between the sea and the mainland, in which the impact of the waves is weakened during high tide. Because the plants that grow there form a rough structure, explains researcher Maike Paul from the Ludwig Franzius Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Estuary and Coastal Engineering at the University of Hanover. "Because the plants stand in the way of the water, they ensure that wave energy is weakened." In addition, a difference in height from the offshore tidal flats to the salt marshes causes waves to break and less wave energy to reach the dike.

"With our study, we were able to show that the coastal protection function of the salt marshes will not deteriorate, even if climate change happens as we all fear," says Paul. "Even then, we can still rely on the protection of the salt marshes." Salt marshes are characterized by the fact that they are regularly flooded by salty seawater. According to the national park administration, there are more than 13,000 hectares of salt marshes in front of the Schleswig-Holstein dikes and on the Halligen. In Lower Saxony there are about 8400 hectares in front of the coastal dikes and on the southern sides of the islands. Altogether, this corresponds to an area of ​​almost 30,000 football pitches.

In the study, the researchers from Hanover, together with scientists from the Wadden Sea station of the Bremerhaven Alfred Wegener Institute in List on Sylt, examined the extent to which the biomechanical properties of two salt marsh plant species - the salt marsh grass (Spartina anglica) and the couch grass (Elymus athericus) - – change under future climatic conditions. For the experiment, they based the assumptions of a scenario from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and exposed the plants in a laboratory to a water temperature three degrees higher and a CO₂ content of 800 ppm (parts of CO₂ per million parts) for 13 weeks.

"We then examined how stiff these plants still are - i.e. how much force is required to snap them off," says Paul. Stiffness is an important parameter for estimating how well the plants can dampen waves. The result: the higher temperature and the higher CO₂ content did not affect the elasticity of the stalks. In the case of the salt marsh grass, an increase in the stalk diameter and the bending stiffness was even observed. The stiffer and more rigid a plant is, the greater its wave-dampening effect, says Paul. "However, if the plant buckles during the first wave, it can only generate less wave damping for the subsequent waves."

From the researchers' point of view, the findings can be of great importance for coastal protection in future adaptation strategies to climate change. Because the data is valuable for making predictions about the protective effect of salt marshes, says Paul. Existing salt marshes should therefore be preserved and included in coastal protection plans according to the "building with nature" approach - i.e. taking natural ecosystem services into account. "We should also think about whether we could not enlarge these areas in order to use even more of their protective effect," says the scientist.

However, the question remains to what extent salt marshes can grow with sea level rise, similar to tidal flats. According to Paul, studies have already shown that salt marshes are basically capable of doing this, for example by storm surges washing up sediments on the salt marshes. “This is how the salt marshes slowly grow upwards. However, it assumes that there is sediment that can be washed onto the salt marshes.” The availability of sediment varies locally. The extent to which salt marshes could also grow along the German coasts is currently being investigated.

"Aha! Ten minutes of everyday knowledge" is WELT's knowledge podcast. Every Tuesday and Thursday we answer everyday questions from the field of science. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Amazon Music, among others, or directly via RSS feed.

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