Assessing the Resiliency of Salt Marshes Under Increasing Nitrogen Loading

Abstract

Understanding the threat to ecosystems from excess nitrogen in coastal waters is a priority issue in scientific research and natural resource management. Previous field studies have demonstrated that high nitrogen loading can decrease the health and resiliency of salt marshes through shifting biomass allocation, increasing decomposition, and causing creek bank instability, all of which can lead to increased marsh loss with sea-level rise. However, other studies have shown relatively little impact of increasing nitrogen on the structure and function of these systems. Due to the long history of eutrophication in Long Island Sound, aggressive nitrogen reduction strategies have been enacted in this region, but detrimental nutrient inputs persist at variable levels throughout the watershed. Here, the extent of nitrogen-linked salt marsh change under varying levels of nutrient stress was measured, testing the hypothesis that salt marsh resilience (as measured by Spartina alterniflora belowground biomass and marsh edge stability) decreases with increasing nitrogen loading. S. alterniflora growth (stem height, stem density, and biomass) and within-marsh creek area were quantified in 10 salt marshes along a nitrogen-loading gradient. Increasing nitrogen loading showed a significant negative relationship with dead belowground biomass in S. alterniflora; the loss of this belowground biomass in higher nitrogen systems may decrease salt marshes’ ability to keep pace with sea-level rise. Neither shifts in live biomass allocation nor a positive relationship between aboveground biomass or stem height and increasing nitrogen was observed that might promote additional sediment capture, but higher stem density could play a role in promoting sedimentation on the marsh surface in more sediment-rich systems. Aerial photography analysis revealed marsh creek expansion since 1934 at 90% of the marshes studied, but unlike findings from prior experimental enrichment studies, the rate of marsh loss did not increase with increasing nitrogen loading. Given the importance of these ecosystems and the potential of nitrogen to decrease their resiliency, understanding the impacts of eutrophication on salt marshes is critical. However, these results show that the relative importance of nitrogen in driving salt marsh loss in Long Island Sound may be less than studies from other regions have suggested.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Josh Cooper and Megan Roughan for assistance in the lab and field. We thank Mary Donato as well as two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on the draft manuscript. We thank Sherwood Island State Park, Darien Land Trust, Norwalk Land Trust, Milford Land Conservation Trust, Farm River State Park, Quinnipiac University, Branford Land Trust, Hammonasset Beach State Park, and Madison Land Conservation Trust for access to the study sites. We thank Connecticut Environmental Conditions Online and the Connecticut State Library for providing the aerial photographs and orthoimagery.

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Correspondence to Sarah C. Crosby.

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Communicated by Carolyn A. Currin

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Crosby, S.C., Spiller, N.C., Healy, D.S. et al. Assessing the Resiliency of Salt Marshes Under Increasing Nitrogen Loading. Estuaries and Coasts (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-021-00899-1

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Keywords

  • Spartina alterniflora
  • Biomass
  • Sea-level rise
  • Eutrophication
  • Marsh drowning