MEPS 221:1-16 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/meps221001

Comparison of nitrogen cycling in salt marsh zones related to sea-level rise

Cassondra R. Thomas1,*, Robert R. Christian2

1University of Virginia, Department of Environmental Science, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903, USA
2East Carolina University, Department of Biology, Greensville, North Carolina 27858, USA

ABSTRACT: Zones in salt marshes can be distinguished by different community and ecosystem properties. As marshes respond to changes in sea level, one might expect alterations in the relative proportions of these zones and, hence, alterations in overall functioning. We used ecological network analysis to assess potential changes in 1 ecosystem function, nitrogen cycling. We constructed nitrogen cycle networks of zones (creekbank, low marsh, and high marsh) for 3 salt marshes on the East Coast of the USA; Great Sippewissett in Massachusetts, Upper Phillips Creek in Virginia, and Sapelo Island in Georgia. The same network structure was applied to all zones, largely using data derived from the literature on the 3 marshes. The factors used to analyze how nitrogen flowed through each zone included how nitrogen imported into the marsh was exported, how imports were related to primary productivity, and how much nitrogen was cycled within the system. Emphasis was placed on identifying patterns across zones that were consistent for all 3 marshes. When precipitation and tidal particulate nitrogen (PN) were the imports, export from active cycling via burial and denitrification significantly increased in importance moving across the marsh from the creekbank to the high marsh. Relative nitrogen cycling also significantly increased from creekbank to high marsh. As the area of the marsh zones decrease or increase in response to sea-level rise, nitrogen dynamics will change as a consequence. If the landscape slope is low allowing the marsh to migrate overland, the high marsh zone will increase in area. Nitrogen cycling as a percentage of total system throughput will increase per unit area averaged over the total marsh. If, however, the marsh stalls because of a steep slope at the upland margin, cycling will decrease on a per unit area basis. If the supply of sediment is great and the marsh progrades toward the sea, nitrogen cycling within the marsh may decrease. Therefore, as relative sea-level rises, the response of a salt marsh¹s nitrogen cycle will depend on the slope and sediment supply available to the marsh.

KEY WORDS: Salt marsh · Nitrogen cycle · Network analysis · Sea-level rise

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