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Title: Long-Term Community Dynamics Reveal Different Trajectories for Two Mid-Atlantic Maritime Forests
Maritime forests are threatened by sea-level rise, storm surge and encroachment of salt-tolerant species. On barrier islands, these forested communities must withstand the full force of tropical storms, hurricanes and nor’easters while the impact is reduced for mainland forests protected by barrier islands. Geographic position may account for differences in maritime forest resilience to disturbance. In this study, we quantify two geographically distinct maritime forests protected by dunes on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (i.e., mainland and barrier island) at two time points (15 and 21 years apart, respectively) to determine whether the trajectory is successional or presenting evidence of disassembly with sea-level rise and storm exposure. We hypothesize that due to position on the landscape, forest disassembly will be higher on the barrier island than mainland as evidenced by reduction in tree basal area and decreased species richness. Rate of relative sea-level rise in the region was 5.9 ± 0.7 mm yr−1 based on monthly mean sea-level data from 1975 to 2017. Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve maritime forest was surveyed using the point quarter method in 2003 and 2018. Parramore Island maritime forest was surveyed in 1997 using 32 m diameter circular plots. As the island has been eroding over the past two decades, 2016 Landsat imagery was used to identify remaining forested plots prior to resurveying. In 2018, only plots that remained forested were resurveyed. Lidar was used to quantify elevation of each point/plot surveyed in 2018. Plot elevation at Savage Neck was 1.93 ± 0.02 m above sea level, whereas at Parramore Island, elevation was lower at 1.04 ± 0.08 m. Mainland dominant species, Acer rubrum, Pinus taeda, and Liquidambar styraciflua, remained dominant over the study period, with a 14% reduction in the total number of individuals recorded. Basal area increased by 11%. Conversely, on Parramore Island, 33% of the former forested plots converted to grassland and 33% were lost to erosion and occur as ghost forest on the shore or were lost to the ocean. Of the remaining forested plots surveyed in 2018, dominance switched from Persea palustris and Juniperus virginiana to the shrub Morella cerifera. Only 46% of trees/shrubs remained and basal area was reduced by 84%. Shrub basal area accounted for 66% of the total recorded in 2018. There are alternative paths to maritime forest trajectory which differ for barrier island and mainland. Geographic position relative to disturbance and elevation likely explain the changes in forest community composition over the timeframes studied. Protected mainland forest at Savage Neck occurs at higher mean elevation and indicates natural succession to larger and fewer individuals, with little change in mixed hardwood-pine dominance. The fronting barrier island maritime forest on Parramore Island has undergone rapid change in 21 years, with complete loss of forested communities to ocean or conversion to mesic grassland. Of the forests remaining, dominant evergreen trees are now being replaced with the expanding evergreen shrub, Morella cerifera. Loss of biomass and basal area has been documented in other low elevation coastal forests. Our results indicate that an intermediate shrub state may precede complete loss of woody communities in some coastal communities, providing an alternative mechanism of resilience.  more » « less
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