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Carbon sources in the sediments of a restoring vs. historically unaltered salt marsh

April 22, 2020

Salt marshes provide the important ecosystem service of carbon storage in their sediments; however, little is known about the sources of such carbon and whether they differ between historically unaltered and restoring systems. In this study, stable isotope analysis was used to quantify carbon sources in a restoring, sparsely vegetated marsh (Restoring) and an adjacent, historically unaltered marsh (Reference) in the Nisqually River Delta (NRD) of Washington, USA. Three sediment cores were collected at “Inland” and “Seaward” locations at both marshes ~ 6 years after restoration. Benthic diatoms, C3 plants, C4 plants, and particulate organic matter (POM) were collected throughout the NRD. δ13C and δ15N values of sources and sediments were used in a Bayesian stable isotope mixing model to determine the contribution of each carbon source to the sediments of both marshes. Autochthonous marsh C3 plants contributed 73 ± 10% (98 g C m−2 year−1) and 89 ± 11% (119 g C m−2 year−1) to Reference-Inland and Reference-Seaward sediment carbon sinks, respectively. In contrast, the sediment carbon sink at the Restoring Marsh received a broad assortment of predominantly allochthonous materials, which varied in relative contribution based on source distance and abundance. Marsh POM contributed the most to Restoring-Seaward (42 ± 34%) (69 g C m−2 year−1) followed by Riverine POM at Restoring-Inland (32 ± 41%) (52 g C m−2 year−1). Overall, this study demonstrates that largely unvegetated, restoring marshes can accumulate carbon by relying predominantly on allochthonous material, which comes mainly from the most abundant and closest estuarine sources.

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