Inundation, Vegetation, and Sediment Effects on Litter Decomposition in Pacific Coast Tidal Marshes
The cycling and sequestration of carbon are important ecosystem functions of estuarine wetlands that may be affected by climate change. We conducted experiments across a latitudinal and climate gradient of tidal marshes in the northeast Pacific to evaluate the effects of climate- and vegetation-related factors on litter decomposition. We manipulated tidal exposure and litter type in experimental mesocosms at two sites and used variation across marsh landscapes at seven sites to test for relationships between decomposition and marsh elevation, soil temperature, vegetation composition, litter quality, and sediment organic content. A greater than tenfold increase in manipulated tidal inundation resulted in small increases in decomposition of roots and rhizomes of two species, but no significant change in decay rates of shoots of three other species. In contrast, across the latitudinal gradient, decomposition rates of Salicornia pacifica litter were greater in high marsh than in low marsh. Rates were not correlated with sediment temperature or organic content, but were associated with plant assemblage structure including above-ground cover, species composition, and species richness. Decomposition rates also varied by litter type; at two sites in the Pacific Northwest, the grasses Deschampsia cespitosa and Distichlis spicata decomposed more slowly than the forb S. pacifica. Our data suggest that elevation gradients and vegetation structure in tidal marshes both affect rates of litter decay, potentially leading to complex spatial patterns in sediment carbon dynamics. Climate change may thus have direct effects on rates of decomposition through increased inundation from sea-level rise and indirect effects through changing plant community composition.