Sentinel Monitoring of Salt Marshes in the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Created: 3/29/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


The Narragansett Bay Research Reserve, along with four other National Estuarine Research Reserves, is acting as a sentinel site to monitor climate change impacts on salt marsh habitat. This project involves creating a long-term ecological monitoring program on Prudence Island to determine the effects of sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, warmer temperatures, and coastal storms on salt marshes.


The Narragansett Bay Research Reserve is located over 2,400 acres of upland habitat and 1,730 acres of estuarine water across four islands in the bay – Prudence, Patience, Hope, and Dyer. Habitats within the reserve include salt marshes, maritime forests, and rocky and cobble shores. The Narragansett Bay Research Reserve is part of a national effort, created in 2007, to establish salt marshes as long-term reference sites at five reserves (Narragansett; Wells, Maine; Chesapeake Bay, Virginia; North Carolina; South Slough, Oregon). In addition, the reserve, along with other NERRs, participates in the System Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP), tracking changes in water quality, plants, animals, and habitats within the reserve over time. Salt marshes provide valuable habitat for fish, crabs, and other wildlife, and important ecosystem services by filtering water and protecting the shoreline during strong coastal storms. About 50% of the original salt marshes in the reserve have either been altered or destroyed by human activities (e.g., roads, dikes, development); invasive species and pollution have also caused problems. Restoration efforts are underway at many salt marshes. This habitat is also threatened by climate change; impacts of concern include sea level rise, warmer temperatures, and coastal storms. Sea level rise may cause saltwater intrusion, which in turn may affect the groundwater supply of Prudence Island; the island gets a large percentage of its water supply from community wells. Volunteer monitoring and public workshops educating the island population on water conservation efforts will be used to inform efforts to protect these water supplies from saltwater contamination.


The Narragansett Bay Research Reserve is funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association; this grant is matched by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The reserve also receives assistance from the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. The project involves creating a long-term ecological monitoring program of the Coggeshall and Nag salt marshes on Prudence Island. There are two goals: 1) use natural marshes as references to understand what is happening at restored marshes, and 2) use these natural reference sites to understand how marshes across the United States are responding to the impacts of climate change. The reserve is monitoring vegetation, flow patterns, and soils to track water levels and marsh height. Scientists are using Surface Elevation Table (SET) technology to monitor coastal land elevation relative to local sea level in order to determine if and how salt marshes can respond to sea level rise. The reserve will also offer climate change adaptation workshops to municipal staff and officials.

Outcomes and Conclusions

This project will provide a long-term data set on salt marsh response to climate change impacts and inform a broader national effort.


Information gathered from interviews and online resources. Last updated on 3/29/10.


Gregg, R. M. (2010). Sentinel Monitoring of Salt Marshes in the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve [Case study on a project of the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated March 2010)


Scale of Project
Community / Local
Sector Addressed
Conservation / Restoration
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Air temperature
Salinization / Saltwater intrusion
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Water temperature
Climate Type
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Initiate targeted research program
Monitor climate change impacts and adaptation efficacy
Taxonomic Focus
Other Invertebrates
Effort Stage
In progress