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Modeling future scenarios of light attenuation and potential seagrass success in a eutrophic estuary

August 1, 2014

Estuarine eutrophication has led to numerous ecological changes, including loss of seagrass beds. One potential cause of these losses is a reduction in light availability due to increased attenuation by phytoplankton. Future sea level rise will also tend to reduce light penetration and modify seagrass habitat. In the present study, we integrate a spectral irradiance model into a biogeochemical model coupled to the Regional Ocean Model System (ROMS). It is linked to a bio-optical seagrass model to assess potential seagrass habitat in a eutrophic estuary under future nitrate loading and sea-level rise scenarios. The model was applied to West Falmouth Harbor, a shallow estuary located on Cape Cod (Massachusetts) where nitrate from groundwater has led to eutrophication and seagrass loss in landward portions of the estuary. Measurements of chlorophyll, turbidity, light attenuation, and seagrass coverage were used to assess the model accuracy. Mean chlorophyll based on uncalibrated in-situ fluorometry varied from 28 μg L−1 at the landward-most site to 6.5 μg L−1 at the seaward site, while light attenuation ranged from 0.86 to 0.45 m-1. The model reproduced the spatial variability in chlorophyll and light attenuation with RMS errors of 3.72 μg L−1 and 0.07 m-1 respectively. Scenarios of future nitrate reduction and sea-level rise suggest an improvement in light climate in the landward basin with a 75% reduction in nitrate loading. This coupled model may be useful to assess habitat availability changes due to eutrophication and sediment resuspension and fully considers spatial variability on the tidal timescale.