Identifier

etd-06272013-153152

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Oceanography and Coastal Sciences

Document Type

Dissertation

Abstract

Coastal ecosystems occupy an interface between land and ocean, making them vulnerable to a variety of natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Large, episodic disturbances (mega-disturbances) cause immediate and long-lasting changes to coastal wetland plant communities and soils by changing the environmental conditions in which they exist. Here I examined the impacts of storm-induced saltwater intrusion and post-intrusion conditions on the structure and growth of an oligohaline wetland plant community, and on wetland soil biogeochemistry and conditions during and after saltwater intrusion. In the greenhouse, a six-week saltwater intrusion reduced canopy cover and species richness. Once intrusion stress was alleviated, plant community structure and growth were heavily influenced by water level during the 20-month recovery period. Plant resilience after subsequent but non-lethal disturbance (clipping) was dependent on the interaction of flooding and salinity, such that canopy cover recovered to pre-clipping condition more slowly under salty, drained conditions. I also found that sustained high water level favored belowground biomass accumulation, high shear strength, and a relatively low decomposition rate in oligohaline wetland soils in the greenhouse. In the field, plant community structure and growth following saltwater intrusion were heavily influenced by the degree of flooding during the recovery period. High flooding depressed canopy cover and species richness, and influenced species dominance. High flooding also resulted in reduced soil conditions in which sulfide accumulated, and in depressed belowground biomass accumulation. Conversely, sediment inputs enhanced wetland recovery from saltwater intrusion by increasing end-of-season aboveground biomass, providing nutrients, and lowering sulfide concentration when flooding was high. Post-intrusion grazing intensity had few impacts on wetland plants and soils during the recovery phase. Soil response variables measured in intrusion-impacted and reference soils before, during, and after a 6-week saltwater intrusion event indicated that although some significant changes in microbial activity, abundance, and nutrient availability occurred due to saltwater intrusion, these impacts were generally transient, with post-intrusion conditions resembling pre-intrusion conditions. In conclusion, storm-induced saltwater intrusion has some long-lasting impacts on oligohaline wetland plant communities, but mostly transient impacts on oligohaline wetland soils. Possibly more importantly, I found that the oligohaline wetland plant community and soil structure and function was determined by post-intrusion environmental conditions. Because oligohaline wetlands provide vital ecological services in many coastal regions, great effort should be put forth to understand both natural and human impacts to these systems. Information gained through research should be applied in a way that encourages the maintenance of healthy, productive, and diverse wetland communities.

Date

2013

Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Mendelssohn, Irving A.

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