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No Evidence for Long-term Impacts of Oil Spill Contamination on Salt Marsh Soil Nitrogen Cycling Processes


Salt marshes are important sites of nitrogen cycling and removal that straddle the land/ocean interface, allowing them to intercept human-derived nitrogen before it reaches coastal waters where it causes problems like hypoxia and harmful algal blooms. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released an estimated five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, significantly contaminating coastal wetlands over approximately 800 km of shoreline. We investigated microbial nitrogen cycling processes in soil from four salt marshes in Terrebonne Bay, Louisiana, USA that were either exposed or not exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil over the course of 1 year (2013–2014), 2.5–3.5 years post-spill. Specifically, we measured nitrification and denitrification potentials, nitrogen cycling functional gene abundances (nirS, bacterial and archaeal amoA), and soil physical and chemical properties. We show that variation in nitrification and denitrification potentials was independent of site oil exposure. Large year-to-year differences in springtime nitrification potentials were inversely related to plant live belowground biomass, indicating that competition for nitrogen is likely an important control on nitrification. There were positive correlations between nitrification potentials and both soil extractable nitrate concentrations and denitrification potentials, supporting the idea that denitrification is coupled with nitrification. We found no evidence that there was a long-term impact of oil exposure on salt marsh soil microbial nitrogen cycling processes and the nitrogen removal ecosystem service they provide. It is important to note, however, that these impacts could have been masked by high background variability in process rates or loss of oil exposed soil to coastal erosion.

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We would like to thank Anya Hopple, Matthew Rich, Roberta Sheffer, and Hillary Sullivan for their help with sample collection and processing and the comments from the anonymous reviewers who improved this manuscript.


This research was made possible by a grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to the Coastal Waters Consortium. The funders had no role in the design, execution, or analyses of this project. Data from this paper is archived at https://doi.org/10.7266/N7KS6PHW. Data from Marton et al. (2015) and Hill and Roberts (2017) used in the analyses described here are archived at https://doi.org/10.7266/N70Z715C and https://doi.org/10.7266/N7Z31WKW, respectively.

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Correspondence to Charles A. Schutte.

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Communicated by Charles Simenstad

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Schutte, C.A., Marton, J.M., Bernhard, A.E. et al. No Evidence for Long-term Impacts of Oil Spill Contamination on Salt Marsh Soil Nitrogen Cycling Processes. Estuaries and Coasts (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-020-00699-z

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  • Salt marsh
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Oil spill
  • Nitrification
  • Denitrification