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GCE-LTER Signature Publications

Liu, W. and Pennings, S.C. 2021. Variation in synchrony of production among species, sites and intertidal zones in coastal marshes. Ecology. (DOI: 10.1002/ECY.3278)

Spatially synchronous population dynamics are important to ecosystem functioning and have several potential causes. By looking at synchrony in plant productivity over 18 years across two elevations in three types of coastal marsh habitat dominated by different clonal plant species in Georgia, USA, we were able to explore the importance of plant species and different habitat conditions to synchrony. Synchrony was highest when comparing within a plant species and within a marsh zone, and decreased across species, with increasing distance, and with increasing elevational differences. Abiotic conditions that were measured at individual sites (water column temperature and salinity) also showed high synchrony among sites, and in one case (salinity) decreased with increasing distance among sites. The Moran Effect (synchronous abiotic conditions among sites) is the most plausible explanation for our findings. Decreased synchrony between creekbank and mid-marsh zones, and among habitat types (tidal fresh, brackish and salt marsh) was likely due in part to different exposure to abiotic conditions and in part to variation in sensitivity of dominant plant species to these abiotic conditions. We found no evidence for asynchrony among species, sites or zones, indicating that one habitat type or zone will not compensate for poor production in another during years with low productivity; however, tidal fresh, brackish and salt marsh sites were also not highly synchronous with each other, which will moderate productivity variation among years at the landscape level due to the portfolio effect. We identified the creekbank zone as more sensitive than the mid-marsh to abiotic variation and therefore as a priority for monitoring and management.

Burns, C., Alber, M. and Alexander, C.R. Jr. 2020. Historical Changes in the Vegetated Area of Salt Marshes. Estuaries and Coasts. (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-020-00781-6)

Salt marshes are valuable ecosystems, and there is concern that increases in the rate of sea level rise along with anthropogenic activities are leading to the loss of vegetated habitat. The area of vegetated marsh can change not only through advance and retreat of the open fetch edge, but also due to channel widening and contracting, formation and drainage of interior ponds, formation and revegetation of interior mud flats, and marsh migration onto upland areas, each of which is influenced by different processes. This study used historical aerial photographs to measure changes in the extent of vegetated marsh over approximately 70 years at study marshes located in three long-term ecological research (LTER) sites along the US East coast: Georgia Coastal Ecosystems (GCE), Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR), and Plum Island Ecosystems (PIE). Marsh features were categorized into vegetated marsh, ponds, interior mud flats, and channels for three time periods at each site. The three sites showed different patterns of change in vegetated marsh extent over time. At the GCE study site, losses in vegetated marsh, which were primarily due to channel widening, were largely offset by channel contraction in other areas, such that there was little to no net change over the study period. The study marsh at VCR experienced extensive vegetated marsh loss to interior mud flat expansion, which occurred largely in low-lying areas. However, this loss was counterbalanced by marsh gain due to migration onto the upland, resulting in a net increase in vegetated marsh area over time. Vegetated marsh at PIE decreased over time due to losses from ponding, channel widening, and erosion at the open fetch marsh edge. Digital elevation models revealed that the vegetated areas of the three marshes were positioned at differing elevations relative to the tidal frame, with PIE at the highest and VCR at the lowest elevation. Understanding the patterns of vegetation loss and gain at a given site provides insight into what factors are important in controlling marsh dynamics and serves as a guide to potential management actions for marsh protection.

O'Connell, J.L., Alber, M. and Pennings, S.C. 2020. Microspatial differences in soil temperature cause phenology change on par with long-term climate warming in salt marshes. Ecosystems. 23:498–510. (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-019-00418-1)

Phenology studies mostly focus on variation across time or landscapes. However, phenology can vary at fine spatial scales, and these differences may be as important as long-term change from climate warming. We used high-frequency ‘‘PhenoCam’’ data to examine phenology of Spartina alterniflora, afoundation species native to salt marshes on the US East and Gulf coasts, and a common colonizer elsewhere. We examined phenology across three microhabitats from 2013 to 2017 and used this information to create the first spring green-up model for S. alterniflora. We then compared modern spatial variation to that exhibited over a 60-year climate record. Marsh interior plants initiated spring growth 17 days earlier than channel edge plants and spent 35 days more in the green-up phenophase and 25 days less in the maturity phenophase. The start of green-up varied by 17 days among 3 years. The best spring green-up model was based on winter soil total growing degree days. Across microhabitats, spring green-up differences were caused by small elevation changes (15 cm) that drove soil temperature variation of 0.8C. Preliminary evidence indicated that high winter belowground biomass depletion triggered early green-up. Long-term change was similar: winter soil temperatures warmed 1.7 ± 0.3C since 1958, and green-up advanced 11 ± 6 days, whereas contemporary microhabitat differences were 17 ± 4 days. Incorporating local spatial variation into plant phenology models may provide an early warning of climate vulnerability and improve understanding of ecosystem-scale productivity. Microscale phenology variation likely exists in other systems and has been unappreciated.

Solohin, E., Widney, S. and Craft, C.B. 2020. Declines in plant productivity drive loss of soil elevation in a tidal freshwater marsh exposed to saltwater intrusion. Ecology. 101(12):13. (DOI: 10.1002/ecy.3148)

We experimentally increased salinities in a tidal freshwater marsh on the Altamaha River (Georgia, USA) by exposing the organic rich soils to 3.5 yr of continuous (press) and episodic (pulse) treatments with dilute seawater to simulate the effects of climate change such as sea level rise (press) and drought (pulse). We quantified changes in root production and decomposition, soil elevation, and soil C stocks in replicated (n = 6) 2.5 × 2.5 m field plots. Elevated salinity had no effect on root decomposition, but it caused a significant reduction in root production and belowground biomass that is needed to build and maintain soil elevation capital. The lack of carbon inputs from root production resulted in reduced belowground biomass of 1631 ± 308 vs. 2964 ± 204 g/m2 in control plots and an overall 2.8 ± 0.9 cm decline in soil surface elevation in the press plots in the first 3.5 yr, whereas the control (no brackish water additions) and the fresh (river water only) treatments gained 1.2 ± 0.4 and 1.7 ± 0.3 cm, respectively, in a 3.5‐yr period. There was no change in elevation of pulse plots after 3.5 yr. Based on measurements of bulk density and soil C, the decline of 2.8 cm of surface elevation resulted in a loss of 1.4 ± 0.08 kg C/m2 in press plots. In contrast, the control and the fresh treatment plots gained 0.7 ± 0.05 and 0.8 ± 0.05 kg C/m2, respectively, which represents a net change in C storage of more than 2 kg C/m2. We conclude that, when continuously exposed to saltwater intrusion, the tidal freshwater marsh’s net primary productivity, especially root production, and not decomposition, are the main drivers of soil organic matter (SOM) accumulation. Reduced productivity leads to loss of soil elevation and soil C, which has important implications for tidal freshwater marsh persistence in the face of rising sea level.

Thompson, V.D., Rick, T., Garland, C.J., Thomas, D.H., Smith, K.Y., Bergh, S., Sanger, M., Tucker, B., Lulewicz, I.H., Semon, A.M., Schalles, J.F., Hladik, C.M., Alexander, C.R. Jr. and Ritchison, B.T. 2020. Ecosystem stability and Native American oyster harvesting along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Science Advances. 6. (DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aba9652)

The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is an important proxy for examining historical trajectories of coastal ecosystems. Measurement of ~40,000 oyster shells from archaeological sites along the Atlantic Coast of the United States provides a long-term record of oyster abundance and size. The data demonstrate increases in oyster size across time and a nonrandom pattern in their distributions across sites. We attribute this variation to processes related to Native American fishing rights and environmental variability. Mean oyster length is correlated with total oyster bed length within foraging radii (5 and 10 km) as mapped in 1889 and 1890. These data demonstrate the stability of oyster reefs despite different population densities and environmental shifts and have implications for oyster reef restoration in an age of global climate change.

Letourneau, M.L. and Medeiros, P.M. 2019. Dissolved organic matter composition in a marsh-dominated estuary: Response to seasonal forcing and to the passage of a hurricane. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences. 124:1545-1559. (DOI: 10.1029/2018JG004982)

Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is a large and complex mixture of compounds with source inputs that differ with location, season and environmental conditions. Here, we investigated drivers of DOM composition changes in a marsh-dominated estuary off the southeastern U.S. Monthly water samples were collected at a riverine and estuarine site from September 2015 to September 2016, and bulk, optical, and molecular analyses were conducted on samples before and after dark incubations. Results showed that river discharge was the primary driver changing the DOM composition at the mouth of the Altamaha River. For discharge higher than ~ 150 m3 s-1, DOC concentrations and the terrigenous character of the DOM increased approximately linearly with river flow. For low discharge conditions, a clear signature of salt marsh-derived compounds was observed in the river. At the head of Sapelo Sound, changes in DOM composition were primarily driven by river discharge and possibly by summer algae blooms. Microbial consumption of DOC was larger during periods of high discharge at both sites, potentially due to the higher mobilization and influx of fresh material to the system. The Georgia coast was hit by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, which resulted in a large input of carbon to the estuary. The DOC concentration was ~ 2 times higher and DOM composition was more aromatic with a stronger terrigenous signature compared to the seasonal maximum observed earlier in the year during peak river discharge conditions. This suggests that extreme events notably impact DOM quantity and quality in estuarine regions.

Gehman, A., McLenaghan, N.A., Byers, J., Alexander, C.R. Jr., Pennings, S.C. and Alber, M. 2018. Effects of small-scale armoring and residential development on the salt marsh-upland ecotone. Estuaries and Coasts. 41(1):54-67. (DOI: 10.1007/s12237-017-0300-8)

Small-scale armoring placed near the marsh-upland interface to protect single-family homes is widespread but understudied. Using a nested, spatially blocked sampling design on the coast of Georgia, USA, we compared the biota and environmental characteristics of 60 marshes adjacent to either a bulkhead, a residential backyard with no armoring, or an intact forest. We found that marshes adjacent to bulkheads were at lower tidal elevations and had features typical of lower elevation marsh habitats: high coverage of the marsh grass Spartina alterniflora, high density of crab burrows, and muddy sediments. Marshes adjacent to unarmored residential sites had higher soil water content and lower porewater salinities than the armored or forested sites, suggesting that there may be increased freshwater input to the marsh at these sites. Deposition of Spartina wrack on the marsh-upland ecotone was negatively related to elevation at armored sites and positively related at unarmored residential and forested sites. Armored and unarmored residential sites had reduced densities of the high marsh crab Armases cinereum, a species that moves readily across the ecotone at forested sites, using both upland and high marsh habitats. Distance from the upland to the nearest creek was longest at forested sites. The effects observed here were subtle, perhaps because of the small-scale, scattered nature of development. Continued installation of bulkheads in the southeast could lead to greater impacts such as those reported in more densely armored areas like the northeastern USA. Moreover, bulkheads provide a barrier to inland marsh migration in the face of sea level rise. Retaining some forest vegetation at the marsh-upland interface and discouraging armoring except in cases of demonstrated need could minimize these impacts.

Wang, S., Di Iorio, D., Cai, W.-J. and Hopkinson, C.S. 2018. Inorganic carbon and oxygen dynamics in a marsh-dominated estuary. Limnology and Oceanography. 63(1):47-71. (DOI: 10.1002/lno.10614)

We conducted a free-water mass balance-based study to address the rate of metabolism and net carbon exchange for the tidal wetland and estuarine portion of the coastal ocean and the uncertainties associated with this approach were assessed. We measured open water diurnal O2 and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) dynamics seasonally in a salt marsh-estuary in Georgia, U.S.A. with a focus on the marsh-estuary linkage associated with tidal flooding. We observed that the overall estuarine system was a net source of CO2 to the atmosphere and coastal ocean and a net sink for oceanic and atmospheric O2. Rates of metabolism were extremely high, with respiration (43 mol m−2 yr−1) greatly exceeding gross primary production (28 mol m−2 yr−1), such that the overall system was net heterotrophic. Metabolism measured with DIC were higher than with O2, which we attribute to high rates of anaerobic respiration and reduced sulfur storage in salt marsh sediments, and we assume substantial levels of anoxygenic photosynthesis. We found gas exchange from a flooded marsh is substantial, accounting for about 28% of total O2 and CO2 air–water exchange. A significant percentage of the overall estuarine aquatic metabolism is attributable to metabolism of marsh organisms during inundation. Our study suggests not rely on oceanographic stoichiometry to convert from O2 to C based measurements when constructing C balances for the coastal ocean. We also suggest eddy covariance measurements of salt marsh net ecosystem exchange underestimate net ecosystem production as they do not account for lateral DIC exchange associated with marsh tidal inundation.

Wang, Y., Castelao, R. and Di Iorio, D. 2017. Salinity Variability and Water Exchange in Interconnected Estuaries. Estuaries and Coasts. (DOI: 10.1007/s12237-016-0195-9)

A high-resolution coastal ocean model is used to investigate salinity variability and water exchange in a complex coastal system off the southern U.S. characterized by three adjacent sounds that are interconnected by a network of channels, creeks, and intertidal areas. Model results are generally highly correlated with observations from the Georgia Coastal Ecosystem Long Term Ecological Research(GCE-LTER) program, revealing a high degree of salinity variability at the Altamaha River and Doboy Sound, decreasing sharply to ward Sapelo Sound. A Lagrangian particle tracking method is used to investigate local residence time and connectivity in the system. Local residence time is highly variable, increasing with distance from the Altamaha River and decreasing with river flow, revealing that discharge plays a dominant role on transport processes and estuary-shelf ex-change. The Altamaha River and Doboy Sound are connected to each other in all seasons, with exchange occurring both via coastal and estuarine pathways. While particles released at the Altamaha and Doboy rarely reach Sapelo Sound, particles released at Sapelo Sound and the creeks surrounding its main channel can reach the entire estuarine system.

O'Donnell, J. and Schalles, J.F. 2016. Examination of Abiotic Drivers and Their Influence on Spartina alterniflora Biomass over a Twenty-Eight Year Period Using Landsat 5 TM Satellite Imagery of the Central Georgia Coast. Special Issue: Remote Sensing in Coastal Environments. Remote Sensing. 8(6):22. (DOI: 10.3390/rs8060477)

We examined the influence of abiotic drivers on inter-annual and phenological patterns of aboveground biomass for Marsh Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, on the Central Georgia Coast. The linkages between drivers and plant response via soil edaphic factors are captured in our graphical conceptual model. We used geospatial techniques to scale up in situ measurements of aboveground S. alterniflora biomass to landscape level estimates using 294 Landsat 5 TM scenes acquired between 1984 and 2011. For each scene we extracted data from the same 63 sampling polygons, containing 1222 pixels covering about 1.1 million m2. Using univariate and multiple regression tests, we compared Landsat derived biomass estimates for three S. alterniflora size classes against a suite of abiotic drivers. River discharge, total precipitation, minimum temperature, and mean sea level had positive relationships with and best explained biomass for all dates. Additional results, using seasonally binned data, indicated biomass was responsive to changing combinations of variables across the seasons. Our 28-year analysis revealed aboveground biomass declines of 33%, 35%, and 39% for S. alterniflora tall, medium, and short size classes, respectively. This decline correlated with drought frequency and severity trends and coincided with marsh die-backs events and increased snail herbivory in the second half of the study period.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grants OCE-9982133, OCE-0620959, OCE-1237140 and OCE-1832178. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.