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Publications Journal Articles Variance reflects resilience to disturbance along a stress gradient: experimental evidence from coastal marshes
Abstract - Quantifying ecosystem resilience to disturbance is important for understanding the effects of disturbances on ecosystems, especially in an era of rapid global change. However, there are few studies that have used standardized experimental disturbances to compare resilience patterns across abiotic gradients in real-world ecosystems. Theoretical studies have suggested that increased return times are associated with increasing variance during recovery from disturbance. However, this notion has rarely been explicitly tested in field, in part due to the challenges involved in obtaining long-term experimental data. In this study, we examined resilience to disturbance of 12 coastal marsh sites (five low-salinity and seven polyhaline (=salt) marshes) along a salinity gradient in Georgia, USA. We found that recovery times after experimental disturbance ranged from 7 to >127 months, and differed among response variables (vegetation height, cover and composition). Recovery rates decreased along the stress gradient of increasing salinity, presumably due to stress reducing plant vigor, but only when low-salinity and polyhaline sites were analyzed separately, indicating a strong role for traits of dominant plant species. The coefficient of variation of vegetation cover and height in control plots did not vary with salinity. In disturbed plots, however, the CV was consistently elevated during the recovery period and increased with salinity. Moreover, higher CV values during recovery were correlated with slower recovery rates. Our results deepen our understanding of resilience to disturbance in natural ecosystems, and point to novel ways that variance can be used either to infer recent disturbance, or, if measured in areas with a known disturbance history, to predict recovery patterns.
(contributed by J. Wang, 2024)
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    Applying the core-satellite species concept: Characteristics of rare and common riverine dissolved organic matter
Abstract - Introduction: Dissolved organic matter (DOM) composition varies over space and time, with a multitude of factors driving the presence or absence of each compound found in the complex DOM mixture. Compounds ubiquitously present across a wide range of river systems (hereafter termed core compounds) may differ in chemical composition and reactivity from compounds present in only a few settings (hereafter termed satellite compounds). Here, we investigated the spatial patterns in DOM molecular formulae presence (occupancy) in surface water and sediments across 97 river corridors at a continental scale using the “Worldwide Hydrobiogeochemical Observation Network for Dynamic River Systems—WHONDRS” research consortium.Methods: We used a novel data-driven approach to identify core and satellite compounds and compared their molecular properties identified with Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FT-ICR MS).Results: We found that core compounds clustered around intermediate hydrogen/carbon and oxygen/carbon ratios across both sediment and surface water samples, whereas the satellite compounds varied widely in their elemental composition. Within surface water samples, core compounds were dominated by lignin-like formulae, whereas protein-like formulae dominated the core pool in sediment samples. In contrast, satellite molecular formulae were more evenly distributed between compound classes in both sediment and water molecules. Core compounds found in both sediment and water exhibited lower molecular mass, lower oxidation state, and a higher degree of aromaticity, and were inferred to be more persistent than global satellite compounds. Higher putative biochemical transformations were found in core than satellite compounds, suggesting that the core pool was more processed.Discussion: The observed differences in chemical properties of core and satellite compounds point to potential differences in their sources and contribution to DOM processing in river corridors. Overall, our work points to the potential of data-driven approaches separating rare and common compounds to reduce some of the complexity inherent in studying riverine DOM.
(contributed by M. Stadler, 2023)
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    Temporal patterns and causal drivers of aboveground plant biomass in a coastal wetland: insights from time-series analyses 
Abstract - Salt marshes play a crucial role in coastal biogeochemical cycles and provide unique ecosystem services. Salt marsh biomass, which can strongly influence such services, varies over time in response to hydrologic conditions and other environmental drivers. We used gap-filled monthly observations of Spartina alterniflora aboveground biomass derived from Landsat 5 and Landsat 8 satellite imagery from 1984-2018 to analyze temporal patterns in biomass in comparison to air temperature, precipitation, river discharge, nutrient input, sea level, and drought index for a southeastern US salt marsh. Wavelet analysis and ensemble empirical mode decomposition identified month to multi-year periodicities in both plant biomass and environmental drivers. Wavelet coherence detected cross-correlations between annual biomass cycles and precipitation, temperature, river discharge, nutrient concentrations (NOx and PO43–) and sea level. At longer periods we detected coherence between biomass and all variables except precipitation. Through empirical dynamic modeling we showed that temperature, river discharge, drought, sea level, and river nutrient concentrations were causally connected to salt marsh biomass and exceeded the confounding effect of seasonality. This study demonstrated the insights into biomass dynamics and causal connections that can be gained through the analysis of long-term data.
(contributed by Kadir Bice, 2023)
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    Differential impact of two major polychaete guilds on microbial communities in marine sediments: a microcosm study
Abstract - Even though sediment macrofauna are widespread in the global seafloor, the influence of these fauna on microbial communities that drive sediment biogeochemical cycles remains poorly understood. According to recent field investigations, macrofaunal activities control bacterial and archaeal community structure in surface sediments, but the inferred mechanisms have not been experimentally verified. Here we use laboratory microcosms to investigate how activities of two major polychaete guilds, the lugworms, represented by Abarenicola pacifica, and the clamworms, represented by Nereis vexillosa, influence microbial communities in coastal sediments. A. pacifica treatments show >tenfold increases in microbial cell-specific consumption rates of oxygen and nitrate, largely due to the strong ventilation activity of A. pacifica. While ventilation resulted in clearly elevated percentages of nitrifying archaea (Nitrosopumilus spp.) in surface sediments, it only minorly affected bacterial community composition. By comparison, reworking – mainly by deposit-feeding of A. pacifica – had a more pronounced impact on microorganismal communities, significantly driving down abundances of Bacteria and Archaea. Within the Bacteria, lineages that have been linked to the degradation of microalgal biomass (e.g., Flavobacteriaceae and Rhodobacteraceae), were especially affected, consistent with the previously reported selective feeding of A. pacifica on microalgal detritus. In contrast, N. vexillosa, which is not a deposit feeder, did not significantly influence microbial abundances or microbial community structure. This species also only had a relatively minor impact on rates of oxygen and nitrogen cycling, presumably because porewater exchanges during burrow ventilation by this species were mainly restricted to sediments immediately surrounding the burrows. Collectively our analyses demonstrate that macrofauna with distinct bioturbation modes differ greatly in their impacts on microbial community structure and microbial metabolism in marine sediments.
(contributed by L. Deng, 2023)
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    Photosynthetic Performance of Tidally Flooded Spartina Alterniflora Salt Marshes
Abstract - Spartina alterniflora has a distinct flood-adapted morphology, and its physiological responses are likely to vary with differences in tidal submergence. To understand these responses, we examined the impacts of tidal inundation on the efficiency of Photosystem II (φPSII) photochemistry and leaf-level photosynthesis at different canopy heights through a combination of in situ chlorophyll fluorescence (ChlF), incident photosynthetically active radiation, and tide levels. Our result showed small declines (7%–8.3%) in φPSII for air-exposed leaves when the bottom canopies were tidally submerged. Submerged leaves produced large reductions (30.3%–41%) in φPSII. Our results suggest that when submerged, PSII reaction centers in S. alterniflora leaves are still active and able to transfer electrons, but only at ∼20% of the typical daily rate. We attribute this reduction in φPSII to the decrease in the fraction of “open” PSII reaction centers (10% of the total) and the stomatal conductance rate caused by the tidal submergence. To our knowledge, this flooding induced leaf-level reduction of φPSII for S. alterniflora in field settings has not been reported before. Our findings suggest that canopy-level φPSII is dependent on the proportion of submerged versus emerged leaves and highlight the complexities involved in estimating the photosynthetic efficiency of tidal marshes.
(contributed by Lishen Mao, 2023)
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    Dynamic emergent leaf area in tidal wetlands: Implications for satellite-derived regional and global blue carbon estimates
Abstract - The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate highlights the importance of blue carbon in tidal wetlands in combating climate change. In this study, we highlight the uncertainty associated with leaf area index (LAI) estimations in tidal wetlands, specifically salt marshes, a key vegetation parameter for productivity models and Earth System Models (ESM). LAI, derived from satellite reflectance data, is linked to atmospheric carbon exchange and gross primary production (GPP) across vegetative ecosystems. However, estimating salt marsh LAI is challenging because canopy height and density vary across short distances, and tidal flooding alters the atmosphere-exposed leaf area, hereafter called emergent leaf area index (ELAI), at short time scales. Further, in tidal wetlands dominated by species such as Spartina alterniflora, canopy height and density vary across short distances. We present a novel approach for measuring spatiotemporal dynamics in tidal wetland ELAI. We modeled ELAI from vertical LAI profiles and created spatial estimates across tidal periods. We then linked ELAI with eddy covariance carbon (C) fluxes through footprint modeling and revealed correlations between emergent leaf area and C fluxes. Next, we demonstrated that ELAI can be readily estimated across 10-m spatial scales using Sentinel-2 satellite data, even during high tides (R2 = 0.89; NRMSE = 10%). Finally, we showed a common product, MODIS MYD15A2H, underestimated (20%) LAI during dry conditions but overestimated (7–93%) during high flooding. Dynamic ELAI could reduce uncertainties in satellite-derived global GPP products when developing blue carbon budgets for ecosystems threatened by accelerated sea level rise.
(contributed by Peter Hawman, 2023)
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    Faunal engineering stimulates landscape-scale accretion in southeastern US salt marshes
Abstract - The fate of coastal ecosystems depends on their ability to keep pace with sealevel rise—yet projections of accretion widely ignore effects of engineering fauna. Here, we quantify effects of the mussel, Geukensia demissa, on southeastern US saltmarsh accretion. Multi-season and -tidal stage surveys, in combination with field experiments, reveal that deposition is 2.8-10.7-times greater on mussel aggregations than any other marsh location. Our Delft-3DBIVALVES model further predicts that mussels drive substantial changes to both the magnitude (±<0.1 cm·yr−1) and spatial patterning of accretion at marsh domain scales. We explore the validity of model predictions with a multi-year creekshed mussel manipulation of >200,000 mussels and find that this faunal engineer drives far greater changes to relative marsh accretion rates than predicted (±>0.4 cm·yr−1). Thus, we highlight an urgent need for empirical, experimental, and modeling work to resolve the importance of faunal engineers in directly and indirectly modifying the persistence of coastal ecosystems globally.
(contributed by Sinead M. Crotty, 2023)
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    Ephemeral microbial responses to pulses of bioavailable carbon in oxic and anoxic salt marsh soils
Abstract - Roots of salt marsh grasses contribute to soil building but also affect decomposition by releasing bioavailable carbon exudates and oxygen. Disentangling exudate and oxygen effects on decomposition is difficult in the field but essential for marsh carbon models and predicting the impacts of global change disturbances. We tested how pulsed, simulated exudates affect soil metabolism under oxic and anoxic conditions, and whether carbon and oxygen availability facilitate mineralization of existing organic matter (i.e., priming). We conducted a laboratory experiment in flow-through reactors, adding carbon pulses weekly for 84 days and then following starvation under low carbon conditions. Oxygen consumption and sulfide production were inhibited under anoxic and oxic conditions and slowed by 21 ± 10% and 55 ± 8%, respectively, between 1- and 5- days following exudate pulses. Respiration rates immediately following and between pulses increased over time, suggesting that microbes capitalize on and may acclimate to patchy resources. Starvation caused oxygen consumption and sulfide production to fall 28% and 78% in oxic and anoxic treatments. Smaller decreases in oxygen consumption following pulses could suggest greater access to secondary carbon sources and that sulfate reducers were more reliant on exudates. Soil organic carbon was not the likely secondary source because porewater dissolved inorganic carbon δ13C values did not change during transit through the reactors, despite a ∼26‰ difference between the supplied seawater and marsh soil. Interpretation of oxygen consumption rates is complicated by non-respiratory oxidation of reduced inorganic compounds and possibly significant lithoautotrophy. Exudate pulses elicited rapid and ephemeral respiratory responses, particularly under anoxia, but non-respiratory oxidation of reduced compounds obscured the impact of oxygen availability in our experimental system. Despite this, greater aerobic respiration rates suggest that oxygen availability has more potential to regulate carbon mineralization in coastal wetlands than root exudates.
(contributed by Amanda C. Spivak, 2023)
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    Utilizing Repeat UAV Imagery to Evaluate the Spatiotemporal Patterns and Environmental Drivers of Wrack in a Coastal Georgia Salt Marsh
Abstract - Wrack, comprised of dead marsh grass, occurs naturally in salt marshes. Wrack can reduce biomass in underlying vegetation and affect salt marsh function. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) provide a more efficient and cost-effective method than traditional field sampling for characterizing the distribution of wrack at a fine spatial scale. We used a DJI Matrice 210 UAV with a MicaSense Altum to collect a total of 20 images from January 2020–December 2021 in a salt marsh on Sapelo Island, GA. Wrack was classified using principal component analysis. Classified images were then used to characterize the size-frequency distribution, landscape position, and potential environmental drivers of wrack. We observed ~ 2100 wrack patches over the course of the study, most of which were present for only a single month. Wrack was found most frequently at the mean higher high water line (~ 1 m), although the areas with the highest frequency of wrack as a proportion of available marsh area were at a higher elevation (> 1.3 m) and closer to creeks or shorelines (~ 40–50 m). High tide events were found to decrease the distance to water of wrack and increase the standard deviation of wrack elevation. This study provides a methodology for understanding wrack dynamics at a landscape scale using frequent, high-resolution UAV data.
(contributed by Tyler Lynn, 2023)
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    Carbonate chemistry and the potential for acidification in Georgia coastal marshes and the South Atlantic Bight, USA
Abstract - In coastal regions and marginal bodies of water, the increase in partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2) in many instances is greater than that of the open ocean due to terrestrial (river, estuarine, and wetland) influences, decreasing buffering capacity and/or increasing water temperatures. Coastal oceans receive freshwater from rivers and groundwater as well as terrestrial-derived organic matter, both of which have a direct influence on coastal carbonate chemistry. The objective of this research is to determine if coastal marshes in Georgia, USA, may be “hot-spots” for acidification due to enhanced inorganic carbon sources and if there is terrestrial influence on offshore acidification in the South Atlantic Bight (SAB). The results of this study show that dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and total alkalinity (TA) are elevated in the marshes compared to predictions from conservative mixing of the freshwater and oceanic end-members, with accompanying pH around 7.2 to 7.6 within the marshes and aragonite saturation states (ΩAr) <1. In the marshes, there is a strong relationship between the terrestrial/estuarine-derived organic and inorganic carbon and acidification. Comparisons of pH, TA, and DIC to terrestrial organic material markers, however, show that there is little influence of terrestrial-derived organic matter on shelf acidification during this period in 2014. In addition, ΩAr increases rapidly offshore, especially in drier months (July). River stream flow during 2014 was anomalously low compared to climatological means; therefore, offshore influences from terrestrial carbon could also be decreased. The SAB shelf may not be strongly influenced by terrestrial inputs to acidification during drier than normal periods; conversely, shelf waters that are well-buffered against acidification may not play a significant role in mitigating acidification within the Georgia marshes.
(contributed by Janet J. Reimer, 2023)
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    Flood risk as legacy vulnerability: Reading the past into the present for environmental justice
Abstract - Decades of environmental justice research has focused on identifying existing patterns of disproportionate burdens to environmental harms across social difference. However, relatively few studies examine the “legacy effect” of historical patterns. In flood risk studies specifically, several scholars have highlighted the role of systemic processes in historically shaping and producing observed disparities in flood risk patterns. These studies reveal that such relations are tied to histories of racialized land struggles and territorial dispossessions. In this paper, I argue that scholars need to do more than quantify today’s disproportionate burdens across social difference or explain the systemic processes causing those disparities. I suggest that “legacy vulnerability” helps identify how the potential for harm from flood risk to marginalized groups may reside in events of the past that have imprinted a spatially hidden, but spatiotemporally revealed unjust pattern upon today’s landscape. In a flood risk assessment of Sapelo Island, the initial results suggest that when comparing contemporary flood risk of Sapelo’s Geechee descendant (Black and mostly low-to-middle income) to non-descendant newcomer owners (mostly white and affluent) an environmental justice disparity in proportional flood risk burden does not exist. However, results of a counterfactual flood risk assessment show that approximately one-third of historically owned, Geechee property is located outside the contemporary 100-year flood zone compared to zero percent outside of it today. In other words, roughly one-third of Geechee property’s flood risk today is a legacy vulnerability directly tied to racialized land dispossessions that unfolded in the middle twentieth century.
(contributed by Dean Hardy, 2023)
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    Recent acceleration of wetland accretion and carbon accumulation along the U.S. East Coast.
Abstract - The long-term stability of coastal wetlands is determined by interactions among sea level, plant primary production, sediment supply, and wetland vertical accretion. Human activities in watersheds have significantly altered sediment delivery from the landscape to the coastal ocean, with declines along much of the U.S. East Coast. Tidal wetlands in coastal systems with low sediment supply may have limited ability to keep pace with accelerating rates of sea-level rise (SLR). Here, we show that rates of vertical accretion and carbon accumulation in nine tidal wetland systems along the U.S. East Coast from Maine to Georgia can be explained by differences in the rate of relative SLR (RSLR), the concentration of suspended sediments in the rivers draining to the coast, and temperature in the coastal region. Further, we show that rates of vertical accretion have accelerated over the past century by between 0.010 and 0.083 mm yr−2, at roughly the same pace as the acceleration of global SLR. We estimate that rates of carbon sequestration in these wetland soils have accelerated (more than doubling at several sites) along with accelerating accretion. Wetland accretion and carbon accumulation have accelerated more rapidly in coastal systems with greater relative RSLR, higher watershed sediment availability, and lower temperatures. These findings suggest that the biogeomorphic feedback processes that control accretion and carbon accumulation in these tidal wetlands have responded to accelerating RSLR, and that changes to RSLR, watershed sediment supply, and temperature interact to determine wetland vulnerability across broad geographic scales.
(contributed by Nathaniel B. Weston, 2023)
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    Practical guide to measuring wetland carbon pools and fluxes.
Abstract - Wetlands cover a small portion of the world, but have disproportionate influence on global carbon (C) sequestration, carbon dioxide and methane emissions, and aquatic C fluxes. However, the underlying biogeochemical processes that affect wetland C pools and fluxes are complex and dynamic, making measurements of wetland C challenging. Over decades of research, many observational, experimental, and analytical approaches have been developed to understand and quantify pools and fluxes of wetland C. Sampling approaches range in their representation of wetland C from short to long timeframes and local to landscape spatial scales. This review summarizes common and cutting-edge methodological approaches for quantifying wetland C pools and fluxes. We first define each of the major C pools and fluxes and provide rationale for their importance to wetland C dynamics. For each approach, we clarify what component of wetland C is measured and its spatial and temporal representativeness and constraints. We describe practical considerations for each approach, such as where and when an approach is typically used, who can conduct the measurements (expertise, training requirements), and how approaches are conducted, including considerations on equipment complexity and costs. Finally, we review key covariates and ancillary measurements that enhance the interpretation of findings and facilitate model development. The protocols that we describe to measure soil, water, vegetation, and gases are also relevant for related disciplines such as ecology. Improved quality and consistency of data collection and reporting across studies will help reduce global uncertainties and develop management strategies to use wetlands as nature-based climate solutions.
(contributed by S. Bansal, 2023)
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    Collective action and shellfish harvesting practices among Late Archaic villagers of the South Atlantic Bight
Abstract - Indigenous coastal communities across the globe sustainably harvested oysters and other shellfish species for millennia. European colonialism and the emergence of market-based institutions, however, lead to the eventual demise of many oyster reefs and fisheries beginning in the late 1800 s. Circular shell rings situated on Georgia’s South Atlantic coast are the preserved remnants of Native American village communities during the Late Archaic (5000–3000 cal. BP). Mollusk shells from these archaeological contexts hold chemical clues into past human-environmental interactions and thus give insight into Indigenous histories and sustainable shellfish harvesting practices. In this paper, we interpret shellfish geochemistry data (oxygen isotopes, δ18O) from the Sapelo Island Shell Ring Complex within a theoretical framework of cooperation and collective action to understand the ways in which Ancestral Muskogean people of Sapelo Island, Georgia, effectively managed and sustained oyster reefs and other coastal fisheries during the Late Archaic. More specifically, δ18O values from 18 oysters and 57 clams were used to determine season of harvest and to estimate salinity values of the habitats from which the shells were harvested. Results demonstrate considerable variation in estimated salinity values and some statistically significant differences in δ18O and salinity values between shells harvested in different seasons. This indicates that the sedentary villagers who lived at the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex were moving around seasonally and using an array of habitats. We argue that this suggests the presence of social institutions or rules that governed the use of coastal estuaries so that mollusks were not overexploited.
(contributed by Carey J. Garland, 2023)
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    Salt marsh nitrogen cycling: where land meets sea
Abstract - Salt marshes sit at the terrestrial–aquatic interface of oceans around the world. Unique features of salt marshes that differentiate them from their upland or offshore counterparts include high rates of primary production from vascular plants and saturated saline soils that lead to sharp redox gradients and a diversity of electron acceptors and donors. Moreover, the dynamic nature of root oxygen loss and tidal forcing leads to unique biogeochemical conditions that promote nitrogen cycling. Here, we highlight recent advances in our understanding of key nitrogen cycling processes in salt marshes and discuss areas where additional research is needed to better predict how salt marsh N cycling will respond to future environmental change.
(contributed by Jennifer L. Bowen, 2023)
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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.