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Biotic Recovery Following Ice-Rafting in a Salt Marsh


Salt marshes provide critical ecosystem services and functions including habitat provision and coastal community protection from storms. Chronic disturbances (e.g., anthropogenic inputs, climate change) and episodic disturbances (e.g., storms, oil spills) can affect the species composition and abundances of salt marsh biota, thus influencing ecosystem function and service provision. One such disturbance typical of the northeastern USA is annual nor’easter storms which deposit ice-rafted sediments on the salt marsh surface. In the winter of 2018, however, the extratropical cyclone, winter storm Grayson, deposited sediments equivalent to 15 years of accumulation on portions of the Great Marsh in Ipswich, Massachusetts, USA, potentially causing historic impacts. The recovery of the plant and invertebrate communities were evaluated 3 months, 6 months, and 18 months post ice-rafting from winter storm Grayson. We hypothesized sediment deposits would smother underlying plants, surface-dwelling invertebrates (i.e., epifauna), and surface-feeding infauna, such as polychaetes, although we expected little to no impact to subsurface-feeding infauna, such as oligochaetes. As predicted, plant, epifauna, and surface-feeding infauna were all impacted initially by sediment deposition, with lower abundances in deposits than in references, whereas subsurface-feeding infauna were unaffected. Despite historic volumes of sediment deposited by winter storm Grayson, we saw full recovery of the biotic community within 18 months. Sediment deposits had a maximum thickness of 6.5 cm and were patchily distributed throughout the marsh, and quick revegetation and invertebrate recolonization may ultimately have been from nearby, undisturbed areas. The fast recovery of the biotic community suggests minimal impacts to ecosystem services and functions and indicates an overarching resilience of the salt marsh to natural disturbances such as nor’easters.

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We thank Sam Kelsey, Erin VanderJeugdt, and Caroline Failon for field help; Tiffany Birge, Catherine Wilhelm, and Leah Scott for laboratory support; Dr. Linda Deegan for helpful discussions; and Dr. Grace Chiu for assistance with statistical analyses. This paper is Contribution 4060 of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William & Mary.


This work was funded in part by National Science Foundation grants: 1754259, 1637630, and 1902712, and a Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellowship #V721500.

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Correspondence to Serina S. Wittyngham.

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Communicated by R. Scott Warren

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Wittyngham, S.S., Pant, M., Martínez-Soto, K. et al. Biotic Recovery Following Ice-Rafting in a Salt Marsh. Estuaries and Coasts 45, 1361–1370 (2022).

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  • Spartina alterniflora
  • Spartina patens
  • Distichlis spicata
  • Manayunkia aestuarina
  • Orchestia grillus
  • Melampus bidentatus
  • Thin-layer deposition