Stable carbon isotopes as potential sea-level indicators in salt marshes, North Carolina, USA

Publication Type:

Journal Article


The Holocene, Volume 20, Issue 4, p.623-636 (2010)



carbon isotope ratios, Foraminifera, North Carolina, Salt marsh, Sea level


We compared the use of δ13C values and C:N ratios from salt-marsh sediments to reconstruct relative sea level (RSL) with an established approach using foraminifera. Analysis of bulk-organic sediment and plant samples collected along transects at two sites in North Carolina, USA demonstrates that sediment δ13C values can be used to distinguish between Spartina alterniflora-dominated low marsh (C photosynthetic pathway, δ13C values from —17.6‰ to 16.1‰) andJuncus roemerianus-dominated high marsh (C 3 photosynthetic pathway, δ13C values from —28.2‰ to —21.8‰) environments. Juncus roemerianus plants undergo little decompositional change in δ13C (average 0.8‰), although there is a clear difference between Spartina alternifloratissue and bulk-organic sediments (approximately 4‰). C:N ratios on bulk-organic sediment from freshwater upland and salt-marsh environments converge during early diagenesis, rendering them of little use in reconstructing RSL. The utility of δ13C values as a sea-level indicator is limited by the elevational range of C4 plants, making it difficult to recognize salt-marsh subenvironments and improve the precision of RSL reconstructions. Furthermore, Juncus roemerianus-dominated high marsh and freshwater upland sediments cannot be adequately distinguished with δ13C values.