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Effects of prescribed burning on marsh-elevation change and the risk of wetland loss

February 20, 2012

Marsh-elevation change is the net effect of biophysical processes controlling inputs versus losses of soil volume. In many marshes, accumulation of organic matter is an important contributor to soil volume and vertical land building. In this study, we examined how prescribed burning, a common marsh-management practice, may affect elevation dynamics in the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas by altering organic-matter accumulation. Experimental plots were established in a brackish marsh dominated by Spartina patens, a grass found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic marshes. Experimental plots were subjected to burning and nutrient-addition treatments and monitored for 3.5 years (April 2005 – November 2008). Half of the plots were burned once in 2006; half of the plots were fertilized seasonally with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Before and after the burns, seasonal measurements were made of soil physicochemistry, vegetation structure, standing and fallen plant biomass, aboveground and belowground production, decomposition, and accretion and elevation change (measured with Surface Elevation Tables (SET)). Movements in different soil strata (surface, root zone, subroot zone) were evaluated to identify which processes were contributing to elevation change. Because several hurricanes occurred during the study period, we also assessed how these storms affected elevation change rates. The main findings of this study were as follows:
1. The main drivers of elevation change were accretion on the marsh surface and subsurface movement below the root zone, but the relative influence of these processes varied temporally. Prior to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike (September 2008), the main driver was subsurface movement; after the hurricane, both accretion and subsurface movement were important.
2. Prior to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, rates of elevation gain and accretion above a marker horizon were higher in burned plots compared to nonburned plots, whereas nutrient addition had no detectable influence on elevation dynamics.
3. Burning decreased standing and fallen plant litter, reducing fuel load. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike also removed fallen litter from all plots.
4. Aboveground and belowground production rates varied annually but were unaffected by burning and nutrient treatments.
5. Decomposition (of a standard cellulose material) in upper soil layers was increased in burned plots but was unaffected by nutrient treatments.
6. Soil physicochemistry was unaffected by burning or nutrient treatments.
7. The elevation deficit (difference between rate of submergence and vertical land development) prior to hurricanes was less in burned plots (6.2 millimeters per year [mm yr-1]) compared to nonburned plots (7.2 mm yr-1).
8. Storm sediments delivered by Hurricane Ike raised elevations an average of 7.4 centimeters (cm), which countered an elevation deficit that had accrued over 11 years.
Our findings provide preliminary insights into elevation dynamics occurring in brackish marshes of the Texas Chenier Plain under prescribed fire management. The results of this study indicate that prescribed burning conducted at 3- to 5-year intervals is not likely to negatively impact the long-term sustainability of S. patens-dominated brackish marshes at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge and may offset existing elevation deficits by ≈ 1 mm yr-1. The primary drivers of elevation change varied in time and space, leading to a more complex situation in terms of predicting how disturbances may alter elevation trajectories. The potential effect of burning on elevation change in other marshes will depend on several site-specific factors, including geomorphic/ sedimentary setting, tide range, local rate of relative sea level rise, plant species composition, additional management practices (for example, for flood control), and disturbance types and frequency (for example, hurricanes or herbivore grazing). Increasing the scope of inference would require installation of SETs in replicate marshes undergoing different prescribed fire intervals and in different geomorphic settings (with different hurricane frequencies and/or different sedimentary settings). Multiple locations along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts where prescribed fire is used as a management tool could provide the appropriate setting for these installations.

Publication Year 2012
Title Effects of prescribed burning on marsh-elevation change and the risk of wetland loss
DOI 10.3133/ofr20121031
Authors Karen L. McKee, James B. Grace
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2012-1031
Index ID ofr20121031
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Wetlands Research Center