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Date Permissions Signed


Date of Award

Winter 2015

Document Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Environmental Sciences

First Advisor

Rybczyk, John M.

Second Advisor

Shull, David, 1965-

Third Advisor

Bulthuis, Douglas A.


Estuaries worldwide are facing the possibility of conversion to open water if accretion cannot keep pace with increasing rates of sea level rise. Recent research into sediment elevation dynamics in Padilla Bay, a National Estuarine Research Reserve in Puget Sound, has revealed a mean bay-wide elevation deficit of -0.37 cm yr-1 since 2002. However, a more mechanistic prediction of the estuary’s response to future sea level rise should also incorporate non-linear feedback mechanisms between water depth, plant growth, and sediment deposition. Therefore, I used measurements of sediment accretion rates, suspended sediment concentrations, eelgrass stem density, and above- and belowground eelgrass biomass to build and calibrate a marsh equilibrium model (MEM), developed elsewhere but applied here for the first time to this eelgrass-dominated intertidal habitat. I then coupled the MEM with a relative elevation model (REM), which has previously been applied here, to create a hybrid that combines each model’s strengths in mechanistically simulating above- and belowground processes, respectively. The model predicts elevation change under various scenarios of sea level rise and suspended sediment concentrations. I used a 12-year elevation change dataset obtained from an extensive surface elevation table (SET) network in Padilla Bay for model validation.

Field measurements indicated sediment accretion rates to be primarily determined by eelgrass stem density instead of biomass or relative elevation. I modified the hybrid model to reflect this relationship, which differentiates it from its predecessors. The model validation exercise revealed the need for an erosion parameter, without which projected relative elevation gain was substantially overestimated. Model projections without erosion showed an increase in relative elevation over much of the bay’s elevation gradient over a 100-year timeframe, reaching an equilibrium at an elevation where Zostera japonica stem density is maximized. These scenarios would involve an increase in Z. japonica cover in Padilla Bay, and a decrease in Z. marina cover. In contrast, model projections with erosion revealed a loss in relative elevation along the entire elevation gradient for all but the most conservative sea level rise scenario. The magnitude of loss was predicted to be greater at higher elevations. The suspended sediment concentrations required for the bay to maintain a stable relative elevation were higher than the current concentration of 3.93 mg L-1 for all sea level rise scenarios, with up to 15 mg L-1 being required for the most extreme scenario.





Western Washington University

OCLC Number


Subject – LCSH

Seagrasses--Habitat--Effect of water levels on--Washington (State)--Padilla Bay; Estuaries--Effect of water levels on--Washington (State)--Padilla Bay; Ecogeomorphology--Washington (State)--Padilla Bay

Geographic Coverage

Padilla Bay (Wash.)




masters theses




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