To provide the best possible care, doctors first must know what is going on with their patients. The same goes for ecologists and engineers with wetlands. Just like doctors can measure your growth and deduce what could help you get over a sickness, ecologists measure the “health” of ecosystems to try to keep them healthy.
Wetland habitats have many moving parts which makes them difficult to fully understand, but we can get a pretty good idea of whether they are growing or deteriorating and sometimes why. All CWPPRA projects require significant amounts of research to estimate the benefit of the project and minimize any damage that could come from disturbing already established wetlands. CWPPRA funds the Coastwide Reference Monitoring System (CRMS) program, which provides reliable coastal elevation data to scientists. Completed projects are monitored for wetland health factors including land accretion, productivity, and water quality to determine whether they are making a positive impact on coastal systems.
Elevation studies are necessary across our coast since we experience such high levels of sediment subsidence. Elevation can be measured in a variety of ways, such as geodetic leveling, Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (inSAR), or satellite imaging.  Because of the lower precision, satellite imaging is not great for measuring elevation change for a specific point but is relatively reliable for larger changes over longer periods of time. Another common technique for measuring elevation change in wetland ecology is Rod Surface Elevation Tables with Marker Horizons (RSET-MH), which is implemented at all CRMS sites.
An RSET is attached to a deep benchmark that will resist erosion and accretion, somewhere between 20 and 25 meters below the surface of the marsh, where the hard-packed sediments lie. With a benchmark, scientists can measure the relative surface elevation . To measure the rate of sediment accretion between two time periods researchers deposit a layer of white clay on the soil’s surface, called a marker horizon. At a later date, researchers return to the site, collect a core sample, and measure the amount of sediment above the white clay to calculate an accretion rate.  RSET-MH is great for measuring one specific site for small and precise elevation changes, but is limited in area coverage. Luckily, through the Coastwide Reference Monitoring System, we are able to monitor elevation change and accretion rates at over 390 sites across the coast!
Measuring wetland health has many factors, not only elevation change. Check in next week for our next installment on wetland monitoring!
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