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Twelve salt marshes in south Louisiana (USA) were classified as either ‘impaired’ or ‘healthy’ before a summer sample collection of above- and below-ground biomass and determination of sediment accretion rates. The above-ground biomass of plant tissues was the same at both impaired and healthy salt marshes and was not a good predictor of marsh health. However, below-ground root biomass in the upper 30 cm was much lower in the impaired marshes compared to the healthy marshes. Compromises to root production apparently occur before there is an obvious consequence to the above-ground biomass, which may quickly collapse before remedial action can be taken. The subsequent change in vertical position of the marsh surface may be equivalent to many years of accretion, and be irreversible within decades without considerable effort. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that it is the plant’s below-ground accumulation of organic matter, not inorganic matter that governs the maintenance of salt marsh ecosystem in the vertical plane. Reversing the precursor conditions leading to marsh stress before the collapse of the above-ground biomass occurs is therefore a prudent management objective and could be easier than restoration.

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