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Extreme precipitation and flooding contribute to sudden vegetation dieback in a coastal salt marsh

September 5, 2021
Climate extremes are becoming more frequent with global climate change and have the potential to cause major ecological regime shifts. Along the northern Gulf of Mexico, a coastal wetland in Texas suffered sudden vegetation dieback following an extreme precipitation and flooding event associated with Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Historical salt marsh dieback events have been linked to climate extremes, such as extreme drought. However, to our knowledge, this is the first example of extreme precipitation and flooding leading to mass mortality of the salt marsh foundation species, Spartina alterniflora. Here, we investigated the relationships between baseline climate conditions, extreme climate conditions, and large-scale plant mortality to provide an indicator of ecosystem vulnerability to extreme precipitation events. We identified plant zonal boundaries along an elevation gradient with plant species tolerant of hypersaline conditions, including succulents and graminoids, at higher elevations, and flood-tolerant species, including S. alterniflora, at lower elevations. We quantified a flooding threshold for wetland collapse under baseline conditions characterized by incremental increases in flooding (i.e., sea level rise). We proposed that the sudden widespread dieback of S. alterniflora following Hurricane Harvey was the result of extreme precipitation and flooding that exceeded this threshold for S. alterniflora survival. Indeed, S. alterniflora dieback occurred at elevations above the wetland collapse threshold, illustrating a heightened vulnerability to flooding that could not be predicted from baseline climate conditions. Moreover, the spatial pattern of vegetation dieback indicated that underlying stressors may have also increased susceptibility to dieback in some S. alterniflora marshes.Collectively, our results highlight a new mechanism of sudden vegetation dieback in S. alterniflora marshes that is triggered by extreme precipitation and flooding. Furthermore, this work emphasizes the importance of considering interactions between multiple abiotic and biotic stressors that can lead to shifts in tolerance thresholds and incorporating climate extremes into climate vulnerability assessments to accurately characterize future climate threats.
Publication Year 2021
Title Extreme precipitation and flooding contribute to sudden vegetation dieback in a coastal salt marsh
DOI 10.3390/plants10091841
Authors Camille Stagg, Michael Osland, Jena A. Moon, Laura Feher, Claudia Laurenzano, Tiffany C. Lane, William Jones, Stephen Hartley
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Plants Today
Index ID 70223811
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center