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2018-2020 Research Projects: Healthy Coastal Ecosystems

Project: Quantifying Responses of Salt Marsh Productivity to Environmental Variability over Multiple Time Scales Using Novel Field Measurements

Principal Investigators

Tom O’Halloran, Clemson University Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science
Erik Smith, University of South Carolina Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences

Project Number

R/ER-50

Research Description

Along the southeastern US, intertidal salt marshes represent a critical habitat at the interface of the terrestrial and marine environments, performing a variety of ecological functions and services that make them of great economic importance for coastal communities. Salt marshes stabilize the shoreline and represent the first line of defense against flood and storm events. They provide essential fish and shellfish habitat, with greater than 75% of all commercially and recreationally important fish species being dependent on intertidal marsh habitat during some portion of their life cycle. However, the ability of intertidal marshes to maintain their elevation and persist in the face of rising sea level is dependent on non-linear feedbacks between tidal inundation, plant growth, organic matter accretion and sediment deposition. Accurate and integrative measures of marsh productivity as well as the sensitivity of marsh production to environmental drivers (e.g., water level and salinity) over multiple time-scales are therefore essential to understanding how salt marshes will respond to future environmental and anthropogenic stressors.

The overall goal of this project is to define the environmental health and sensitivity of a salt marsh by measuring the landscape-scale response of marsh primary production to variability in water level and salinity over hours to years. To meet this goal, the PI proposes the following objectives: (1) Test the hypothesis that marsh primary productivity is inhibited by a) increased water level and b) elevated salinity at the scale of individual tidal cycles; and (2) Test whether the accuracy of empirical models of primary production at monthly and annual timescales improves when high frequency water level and salinity effects are included. Landscape-scale productivity measurements will result in the development of a suite of predictive relationships relating salt marsh ecosystem productivity to tidal inundation, and salinity regimes. This will enable improved forecasting of Spartina marsh responses to future environmental change.

Contact for Questions

Dr. Tom O’Halloran (tohallo@clemson.edu)