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Soil Organic Carbon Development and Turnover in Natural and Disturbed Salt Marsh Environments

Parallel grid ditches were dug in approximately 90% of mid-Atlantic and New England salt marshes in the 1920s through the 1940s. Today, managers must navigate the effects of past actions when making decisions about marsh hydrology and drainage that impact human health, ecosystem services, and marsh sustainability. Managers must also consider how stressors such as sea-level rise impact marshes. A collaborative research project helped to address this challenge by working iteratively with end user groups to develop a decision support tool for marsh hydrology management strategies that promote sustainability and delivery of valuable ecosystem services under future sea-level scenarios.

About this article

This 2021 article which appeared in Geophysical Research Letters describes a study that took a novel approach to characterize soil organic carbon accumulation supporting marsh elevation maintenance.


Salt marsh survival with rising sea levels increasingly depends on the accumulation and preservation of buried organic carbon. Marsh soil organic carbon development reflects at least three processes: burial of differently reactive compounds that derive from local grasses, redeposition of old carbon (9%-17%), and microbial reworking. Decomposition results in a progressive decrease in the thermal reactivity of soil organic carbon, and disturbances such as ponding can accelerate this shift. Modeled rates of geochemically defined soil organic carbon pools turnover on the order of centuries-to-millennia and can refine predictions of salt marsh sustainability.


Luk, S. Y., Todd-Brown, K., Eagle, M., McNichol, A. P., Sanderman, J., Gosselin, K., & Spivak, A. C. (2021). Soil organic carbon development and turnover in natural and disturbed salt marsh environments. Geophysical Research Letters, 48, e2020GL090287.