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Durham University

Department of Geography

Departmental Research Projects

Publication details

Brain, M.J., Long, A.J, Woodroffe, S.A., Petley, D.N., Milledge, D.G. & Parnell, A.C. Modelling the effects of sediment compaction on salt marsh reconstructions of recent sea-level rise. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 2012;345-348:180-193.

Author(s) from Durham


This paper quantifies the potential influence of sediment compaction on the magnitude of nineteenth and twentieth century sea-level rise, as reconstructed from salt marsh sediments. We firstly develop a database of the physical and compression properties of low energy intertidal and salt marsh sediments. Key compression parameters are controlled by organic content (loss on ignition), though compressibility is modulated by local-scale processes, notably the potential for desiccation of sediments. Using this database and standard geotechnical theory, we use a numerical modelling approach to generate and subsequently ‘decompact’ a range of idealised intertidal stratigraphies. We find that compression can significantly contribute to reconstructed accelerations in recent sea level, notably in transgressive stratigraphies. The magnitude of this effect can be sufficient to add between 0.1 and 0.4 mm yr−1 of local sea-level rise, depending on the thickness of the stratigraphic column. In contrast, records from shallow (<0.5 m) uniform-lithology stratigraphies, or shallow near-surface salt marsh deposits in regressive successions, experience negligible compaction. Spatial variations in compression could be interpreted as ‘sea-level fingerprints’ that might, in turn, be wrongly attributed to oceanic or cryospheric processes. However, consideration of existing sea-level records suggests that this is not the case and that compaction cannot be invoked as the sole cause of recent accelerations in sea level inferred from salt marsh sediments.

Department of Geography