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Will fluctuations in salt marsh–mangrove dominance alter vulnerability of a subtropical wetland to sea‐level rise?

December 5, 2017

To avoid submergence during sea-level rise, coastal wetlands build soil surfaces vertically through accumulation of inorganic sediment and organic matter. At climatic boundaries where mangroves are expanding and replacing salt marsh, wetland capacity to respond to sea-level rise may change. To compare how well mangroves and salt marshes accommodate sea-level rise, we conducted a manipulative field experiment in a subtropical plant community in the subsiding Mississippi River Delta. Experimental plots were established in spatially equivalent positions along creek banks in monospecific stands of Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass) or Avicennia germinans (black mangrove) and in mixed stands containing both species. To examine the effect of disturbance on elevation dynamics, vegetation in half of the plots was subjected to freezing (mangrove) or wrack burial (salt marsh), which caused shoot mortality. Vertical soil development was monitored for 6 years with the surface elevation table-marker horizon system. Comparison of land movement with relative sea-level rise showed that this plant community was experiencing an elevation deficit (i.e., sea level was rising faster than the wetland was building vertically) and was relying on elevation capital (i.e., relative position in the tidal frame) to survive. Although Avicennia plots had more elevation capital, suggesting longer survival, than Spartina or mixed plots, vegetation type had no effect on rates of accretion, vertical movement in root and sub-root zones, or net elevation change. Thus, these salt marsh and mangrove assemblages were accreting sediment and building vertically at equivalent rates. Small-scale disturbance of the plant canopy also had no effect on elevation trajectories—contrary to work in peat-forming wetlands showing elevation responses to changes in plant productivity. The findings indicate that in this deltaic setting with strong physical influences controlling elevation (sediment accretion, subsidence), mangrove replacement of salt marsh, with or without disturbance, will not necessarily alter vulnerability to sea-level rise.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Will fluctuations in salt marsh–mangrove dominance alter vulnerability of a subtropical wetland to sea‐level rise?
DOI 10.1111/gcb.13945
Authors Karen L. McKee, William Vervaeke
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Change Biology
Index ID 70194542
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center