Meta-analysis of salt marsh vegetation impacts and recovery: a synthesis following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

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Marine oil spills continue to be a global issue, heightened by spill events such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest marine oil spill in US waters and among the largest worldwide, affecting over 1,000 km of sensitive wetland shorelines, primarily salt marshes supporting numerous ecosystem functions. To synthesize the effects of the oil spill on foundational vegetation species in the salt marsh ecosystem, Spartina alterniflora and Juncus roemerianus, we performed a meta-analysis using data from 10 studies and 255 sampling sites over seven years post-spill. We examined the hypotheses that the oil spill reduced plant cover, stem density, vegetation height, aboveground biomass, and belowground biomass, and tracked the degree of effects temporally to estimate recovery time frames. All plant metrics indicated impacts from oiling, with 20-100% maximum reductions depending on oiling level and marsh zone. Peak reductions of ~70-90% in total plant cover, total aboveground biomass, and belowground biomass were observed for heavily oiled sites at the marsh edge. Both Spartina and Juncus were impacted, with Juncus affected to a greater degree. Most plant metrics had recovery time frames of three years or longer, including multiple metrics with incomplete recovery over the duration of our data, at least seven years post-spill. Belowground biomass was particularly concerning, because it declined over time in contrast with recovery trends in most aboveground metrics, serving as a strong indicator of ongoing impact, limited recovery, and impaired resilience. We conclude that the Deepwater Horizon spill had multiyear impacts on salt marsh vegetation, with full recovery likely to exceed 10 years, particularly in heavily oiled marshes, where erosion may preclude full recovery. Vegetation impacts and delayed recovery is likely to have exerted substantial influences on ecosystem processes and associated species, especially along heavily oiled shorelines. Our synthesis affords a greater understanding of ecosystem impacts and recovery following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and informs environmental impact analysis, contingency planning, emergency response, damage assessment, and restoration efforts related to oil spills.

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Ecological applications : a publication of the Ecological Society of America

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