The importance of being coupled: Stable states and catastrophic shifts in tidal biomorphodynamics
We describe and apply a point model of the joint evolution of tidal landforms and biota which incorporates the dynamics of intertidal vegetation; benthic microbial assemblages; erosional, depositional, and sediment exchange processes; wind-wave dynamics, and relative sea level change. Alternative stable states and punctuated equilibria emerge, characterized by possible sudden transitions of the system state, governed by vegetation type, disturbances of the benthic biofilm, sediment availability, and marine transgressions or regressions. Multiple stable states are suggested to result from the interplay of erosion, deposition, and biostabilization, providing a simple explanation for the ubiquitous presence of the typical landforms observed in tidal environments worldwide. The main properties of accessible equilibrium states prove robust with respect to specific modeling assumptions and are thus identified as characteristic dynamical features of tidal systems. Halophytic vegetation emerges as a key stabilizing factor through wave dissipation, rather than a major trapping agent, because the total inorganic deposition flux is found to be largely independent of standing biomass under common supply-limited conditions. The organic sediment production associated with halophytic vegetation represents a major contributor to the overall deposition flux, thus critically affecting the ability of salt marshes to keep up with high rates of relative sea level rise. The type and number of available equilibria and the possible shifts among them are jointly driven and controlled by the available suspended sediment, the rate of relative sea level change, and vegetation and microphytobenthos colonization. The explicit description of biotic and abiotic processes thus emerges as a key requirement for realistic and predictive models of the evolution of a tidal system as a whole. The analysis of such coupled processes finally indicates that hysteretic switches between stable states arise because of differences in the threshold values of relative sea level rise inducing transitions from vegetated to unvegetated equilibria and vice versa.