River deltas are ecologically and economically valuable coastal ecosystems but low elevations make them extremely sensitive to relative sea level rise (RSLR), i.e. the combined effects of sea level rise and subsidence. Most deltas are subjected to extensive human exploitation, which has altered the habitat composition, connectivity and geomorphology of deltaic landscapes. In the Ebro Delta, extensive wetland reclamation for rice cultivation over the last 150 years has resulted in the loss of 65% of the natural habitats. Here, we compare the dynamics of habitat shifts under two departure conditions (a simulated pristine delta vs. the human-altered delta) using the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) under the 4.5 and 8.5 RCP (Representative Concentration Pathways) scenarios for evaluating their resilience to RSLR (i.e. resistance to inundation). Results showed lower inundation rates in the human delta (~10 to 22% by the end of the century, depending on RCP conditions), mostly due to ~4.5 times lower initial extension of coastal lagoons compared to the pristine delta. Yet, inundation rates from ~15 to 30% of the total surface represent the worst possible human scenario, assuming no flooding protection measures. Besides, accretion rates within rice fields are disregarded since this option is not available in SLAMM for developed dry land. In the human delta, rice fields were largely shifted to other wetland habitats and experienced the highest reductions, mostly because of their larger surface. In contrast, in the pristine delta most of the habitats showed significant decreases by 2100 (~2 to 32% of the surface). Coastal infrastructures (dykes or flood protection dunes) and reintroduction of riverine sediments through irrigation channels are proposed to minimize impacts of RSLR. In the worst RCP scenarios, promoting preservation of natural habitats by transforming unproductive rice fields into wetlands could be the most sustainable option.
Read the article in Science of the Total Environment.