Multiple states in the sea-level induced transition from terrestrial forest to estuary
- Cite this article as:
- Brinson, M.M., Christian, R.R. & Blum, L.K. Estuaries (1995) 18: 648. doi:10.2307/1352383
In this paper we provide a conceptual model to examine changes in ecosystem state during the transition from terrestrial forest to shallow estuarine environments for coastal mainland marshes at the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR), United States of America. Ecosystem states are characterized by plant community dominants and soil/sediment characteristics. The five states considered are upland or wetland forest, organic high marsh, intertidal mineral low marsh, autotrophic benthic with or without submersed aquatic vascular plants, and heterotrophic benthic (estuarine bottom). Transitions between states are described from the perspective of a fixed forest location undergoing transition from one ecosystem state to another. Rising sea level is acknowledged as the master variable that forces the process of change overall. Each state is hypothesized to have self-maintaining properties and thus is resistant to change from rising sea level; alternatively, transitions between states are facilitated by disturbance or exposure to acute stress. For change to occur, resistance must be overcome by events that are more abrupt than rising sea level and that appear as accentuated pulsings, which result in another self-maintaining and resistnnt state. Such events facilitate plant species replacement and alter sediment conditions. Mechanisms responsible for causing a state to cross a threshold are unique for each transition type and include brackish-water intrusion (osmotic stress and sulfide toxicity), tidal creek encroachment (redistribution of sediments), erosive currents and waves (resuspension of sediments, which increases light extinction), and increasing water depth (leads to greater bottom shading). Field experiments relevant to scales at which pulsings occur are not abundant in coastal marshes.