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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 448:289-301 (2012)  -  DOI:

Modeling the effects of climate change on eelgrass stability and resilience: future scenarios and leading indicators of collapse

Joel A. Carr*, Paolo D’Odorico, Karen J. McGlathery, Patricia L. Wiberg 

University of Virginia Dept. of Environmental Sciences, 291 McCormick Rd, Clark Hall, Charlottesville, Virginia 22904, USA

ABSTRACT: Seagrass meadows influence local hydrodynamics in coastal bays, resulting in a decrease in the shear stress acting on the underlying bed sediment. The reduced sediment suspension and water column turbidity creates a more favorable light environment for further seagrass growth. This positive feedback is strong enough to induce depth-dependent bistable dynamics with 2 possible stable states, an extant meadow and a bare sediment surface. A coupled vegetation-growth hydrodynamic model was used to investigate eelgrass stability and leading indicators of ecosystem shift under the effects of sea-level rise and increases in water temperature associated with climate change. The model was applied to Hog Island Bay, a shallow coastal bay within the Virginia Coast Reserve, USA, where eelgrass restoration efforts are ongoing. The results indicate that while extant eelgrass meadows are likely to tolerate sea-level rise, an increase in the frequency of days when summer water temperature exceeds 30°C will cause more frequent summer die-offs. This increase in the number of higher temperature disturbance events is likely to push a dense meadow initially located within the bistable depth range (1.6 to 1.8 m mean sea level) toward and eventually past a critical bifurcation point, from which recovery is not possible. We identified 2 leading indicators of a meadow nearing this bifurcation point, both associated with the number of leaves per shoot: ‘flickering,’ which reflects conspicuous fluctuations from one attractor to the other across the threshold, and ‘slowing down,’ which is the decreased recovery from perturbations as a system gets close to a threshold. Our model indicates that the eelgrass in these coastal bays has limited resilience to increases in water temperatures predicted from current climate change models.

KEY WORDS: Zostera marina · Seagrass · Climate change · Bistable dynamics · Ecosystem shifts · Leading indicators

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Cite this article as: Carr JA, D’Odorico P, McGlathery KJ, Wiberg PL (2012) Modeling the effects of climate change on eelgrass stability and resilience: future scenarios and leading indicators of collapse. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 448:289-301.

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