Ecosystem Consequences of Sea Level Rise and Salinization in North Carolina’s Coastal Wetlands

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Climate change is driving vegetation community shifts in coastal regions of the world, where low topographic relief makes ecosystems particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, salinization, storm surge, and other effects of global climate change. Salinization has clear effects on vegetation, as few plant species can survive in brackish water, and these shifts in vegetation lead to declines in biomass carbon stocks, as well as significant changes in habitat structure and biodiversity. The rate and extent of these impacts on other wetland ecosystem properties and function is far less certain. This dissertation investigates the ecosystem consequences of saltwater intrusion in coastal wetlands, from shifting vegetation at the landscape scale, to soil biogeochemistry and wetland carbon cycling.Coastal plant communities globally are highly vulnerable to future sea-level rise and storm damage, but the extent to which these habitats are affected by the various environmental perturbations associated with chronic salinization remains unclear. In 2016, a series of vegetation plots across the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula that had been surveyed 7-13 years earlier were revisited in order to measure changes in tree basal area and community composition over time. I found reduced tree basal area in plots at lower elevations and with higher current soil salt content, while these factors explained only a small fraction of the measured changes in tree community composition. While tree basal area increased in the majority of plots, I measured declines in basal area in multiple sites with high soil salt content or low elevation. This decadal comparison provides convincing evidence that increases in soil salinity and saturation can explain recent changes in tree biomass, and potential shifts in community composition in low-elevation sites along the North Carolina coast. In Chapter 3, I quantified land and land cover change in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR), North Carolina’s largest coastal wildlife preserve, from 1985 to 2019 using classification algorithms applied to a long-term record of satellite imagery. Despite ARNWR’s protected status, and in the absence of any active forest management, 32 % (31,600 hectares) of the refuge area has changed land cover classification during the study period. A total of 1151 hectares of land was lost to the sea and ~19,300 hectares of coastal forest habitat were converted to shrubland or marsh habitat. As much as 11 % of all forested cover in the refuge transitioned to ghost forest, a unique land cover class that is characterized by standing dead trees and fallen tree trunks. This is the first attempt to map and quantity coastal ghost forests using remote sensing. These unprecedented rates of deforestation and land cover change due to climate change may become the status quo for coastal regions worldwide, with implications for wetland function, wildlife habitat and global carbon cycling. Salinization of freshwater wetlands is a symptom of climate change induced sea level rise. The ecosystem consequences of increasing salinity are poorly constrained and highly variable within prior observational and experimental studies. Chapter 4 presents the results of the first attempt to conduct a salinization experiment in a coastal forested wetland. Over four years, marine salts were applied to experimental plots several times annually with the goal of raising soil salinity to brackish levels while soil porewater in control plots remained fresh. Each year I measured aboveground and belowground vegetation biomass along with soil carbon stocks and fluxes. Despite adding more than 1.5 kg of salt per m2 to our experimental plots over four years, the ecosystem responses to salt treatments were subtle and varied over the multi-year experiment. In the final year of the experiment, soil respiration was suppressed, and bulk and aromatic soil carbon became less soluble as a result of salt treatments. The more stable carbon pools—soil organic carbon and vegetation associated carbon—remained unaffected by the salt treatment. This experiment demonstrates substantial ecosystem resistance to low dose salinity manipulations. The inconsistent soil carbon responses to experimental salinization I observed in the field led me to question how differences in soil pH and base saturation might alter the impacts of salinity of soil microbial activity. To test this, I performed a salt addition experiment on two series of wetland soils with independently manipulated salt concentrations and solution pH to tease apart the effect of these seawater components on soil carbon cycling (Chapter 5). Microbial respiration and dissolved organic carbon solubility were depressed by marine salts in both soils, while pH manipulation alone had no effect. Salinity treatments had a far greater effect on soil pH than did our intentional pH manipulation and there was a strong interaction between salt treatments and soil type that affected the magnitude of soil carbon responses. Site soils varied significantly in pH and base saturation, suggesting that the interaction between salinity and edaphic factors is mediating soil carbon processes. The degree of salinization and the effective pH shift following seawater exposure may vary widely based on initial soil conditions and may explain much of the variation in reports of salt effects on soil carbon dynamics. I suggest that these edaphic factors may help explain the heretofore inconsistent reports of carbon cycle responses to experimental salinization reported in the literature to date.






Ury, Emily (2021). Ecosystem Consequences of Sea Level Rise and Salinization in North Carolina’s Coastal Wetlands. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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