Spatial patterning is a fascinating theme in both theoretical and experimental ecology. It reveals resilience and stability to withstand external disturbances and environmental stresses. However, existing studies mainly focus on well-developed persistent patterns rather than transient patterns in self-organizing ecosystems. Here, combining models and experimental evidence, we show that transient fairy circle patterns in intertidal salt marshes can both infer the underlying ecological mechanisms and provide a measure of resilience. The models based on sulfide accumulation and nutrient depletion mechanisms reproduced the field-observed fairy circles, providing a generalized perspective on the emergence of transient patterns in salt marsh ecosystems. Field experiments showed that nitrogen fertilization mitigates depletion stress and shifts plant growth from negative to positive in the center of patches. Hence, nutrient depletion plays an overriding role, as only this process can explain the concentric rings. Our findings imply that the emergence of transient patterns can identify the ecological processes underlying pattern formation and the factors determining the ecological resilience of salt marsh ecosystems.