In the high-salinity seaward portions of estuaries, oysters seek refuge from predation, competition and disease in intertidal areas, but this sanctuary will be lost if vertical reef accretion cannot keep pace with sea-level rise (SLR). Oyster-reef abundance has already declined ~85% globally over the past 100 years, mainly from over harvesting, making any additional losses due to SLR cause for concern. Before any assessment of reef response to accelerated SLR can be made, direct measures of reef growth are necessary. Here, we present direct measurements of intertidal oyster-reef growth from cores and terrestrial lidar-derived digital elevation models. On the basis of our measurements collected within a mid-Atlantic estuary over a 15-year period, we developed a globally testable empirical model of intertidal oyster-reef accretion. We show that previous estimates of vertical reef growth, based on radiocarbon dates and bathymetric maps, may be greater than one order of magnitude too slow. The intertidal reefs we studied should be able to keep up with any future accelerated rate of SLR (ref. ) and may even benefit from the additional subaqueous space allowing extended vertical accretion.