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Scientists Use Salt Marshes To Piece Together Historic Sea Level Changes

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University of Rhode Island scientists are turning to salt marshes to better understand the relationship between climate change and sea level rise.

University of Rhode Island scientists are turning to salt marshes to better understand the relationship between climate change and sea level rise.

Simon Engelhart, assistant professor of geosciences at URI's College of Environment and Life Sciences, said tide gauges on the Atlantic Coast dating back to the middle of the 1800s give us an idea about how sea levels are responding to temperature changes.

But to get more precise information, scientists are turning to fossilized plants and animals in salt marsh sediments, which  have the potential to reveal  data dating back as far as 3,000 years.

That can “give us a background and context in which we can place these accelerated levels of sea level rise that we've already seen in the 20th century and understand therefore where we are going to go in the 21st century,” said Engelhart.

He notes that the type of plants and animals that live in salt marshes are "innately tied" to tidal levels.

“Some of them like to be inundated more often, so they like to spend a lot of time under saltwater,” said Engelhart, “and some of them only like seawater, say, once a month.

“And what this means is: If we can understand where these plants or these creatures lived with respect to sea level…, [then] we can use that to infer where sea level was in the past.”

Engelhart said he can examine these historic sea level changes along with temperature records over the last few thousand years to see how sea level is responding to a changing climate.

Engelhart is researching salt marshes at two sites in Rhode Island, but collaborating with other institutions to study salt marshes along the Atlantic Coast, from Florida to Newfoundland.

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A research team led by the University of Rhode Island is taking sediment cores from salt marshes to examine fossilized plants and animals and infer where sea level was in the past.
A research team led by the University of Rhode Island is taking sediment cores from salt marshes to examine fossilized plants and animals and infer where sea level was in the past.