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Spatially-dependent patterns of plant recovery and sediment accretion following multiple disturbances in a Gulf Coast tidal marsh

Abstract

Coastal wetlands are projected to experience increases in anthropogenic and climatic disturbances, which may alter plant-sediment feedbacks critical for maintaining marsh resilience to sea level. To study the effects of disturbance on ecogeomorphic processes, we examined aboveground plant responses and sediment accretion in three locations relative to the shoreline (low, mid, and high) within a tidal marsh at Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Mississippi, USA. This study site was affected by two hurricanes in the fall of 2008, and subsequently burned as part of a controlled experiment in January 2009, permitting examination of the effects of two disturbance types on aboveground plant responses and vertical accretion. Fire and hurricanes affected these response variables differently, with effects dependent on location within the marsh. Fire significantly reduced standing aboveground biomass, and subsequent recovery of vegetation relative to pre-burn levels was faster in low marsh plots nearest to the shore than in high marsh plots closest to the marsh-pine ecotone. Hurricanes introduced sediment to the marsh platform, resulting in greater accretion in low marsh plots that had more standing biomass and higher stem densities than high marsh plots. Collectively, these results demonstrate that disturbances can heterogeneously affect surface soil-building processes in marshes through effects on sediment and organic matter accumulation, which may have important consequences for surface elevation maintenance in coastal marshes.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank University of Alabama students Ryan Cooper, Sarah Masterson, Mason Overstreet, Kevin Richardson, Trey Stevens, and Diane Schneider for assistance with laboratory and field work. We also thank the staff of the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve for their generous support and field assistance, especially Jay McIlwain and Will Underwood. Comments from Dr. Gregory Starr, Dr. William Platt, and an anonymous reviewer improved the quality of this manuscript. Graphics assistance was provided by David Galinat of the Alabama Water Institute. This research was supported by the National Sea Grant College Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under NOAA Grant (R/CEH-27), the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, and the University of Alabama Department of Biological Sciences and New College. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of any of those organizations.

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Braswell, A.E., May, C.A. & Cherry, J.A. Spatially-dependent patterns of plant recovery and sediment accretion following multiple disturbances in a Gulf Coast tidal marsh. Wetlands Ecol Manage 27, 377–392 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11273-019-09666-3

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Keywords

  • Accretion
  • Coastal wetland
  • Disturbance
  • Fire
  • Hurricane
  • Plant production
  • Marsh