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  1. abstract Coastal ecosystems play a disproportionately large role in society, and climate change is altering their ecological structure and function, as well as their highly valued goods and services. In the present article, we review the results from decade-scale research on coastal ecosystems shaped by foundation species (e.g., coral reefs, kelp forests, coastal marshes, seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, barrier islands) to show how climate change is altering their ecological attributes and services. We demonstrate the value of site-based, long-term studies for quantifying the resilience of coastal systems to climate forcing, identifying thresholds that cause shifts in ecological state, and investigating the capacity of coastal ecosystems to adapt to climate change and the biological mechanisms that underlie it. We draw extensively from research conducted at coastal ecosystems studied by the US Long Term Ecological Research Network, where long-term, spatially extensive observational data are coupled with shorter-term mechanistic studies to understand the ecological consequences of climate change.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 16, 2023
  2. Abstract The spatial pattern of vegetation patchiness may follow universal characteristic rules when the system is close to critical transitions between alternative states, which improves the anticipation of ecosystem-level state changes which are currently difficult to detect in real systems. However, the spatial patterning of vegetation patches in temperature-driven ecosystems have not been investigated yet. Here, using high-resolution imagery from 1972 to 2013 and a stochastic cellular automata model, we show that in a North American coastal ecosystem where woody plant encroachment has been happening, the size distribution of woody patches follows a power law when the system approaches a critical transition, which is sustained by the local positive feedbacks between vegetation and the surrounding microclimate. Therefore, the observed power law distribution of woody vegetation patchiness may be suggestive of critical transitions associated with temperature-driven woody plant encroachment in coastal and potentially other ecosystems.
  3. 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 erodingmore »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.« less
  4. Despite recent advances, we still do not understand how chronic nutrient enrichment impacts coastal plant community structure and function. We aimed to clarify such impacts by testing for differences in ecosystem productivity and multiple community metrics in response to fertilization. We established plots in 2015 consisting of control (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and nitrogen + phosphorus (NP) treatments in a mid-Atlantic coastal grassland. In 2017 we collected aboveground biomass, functional traits, and species abundance for each plot. Our findings indicate a synergistic co-limitation, such that NP plots were more productive than all other treatments. A combination of traits responsible for competition and nutrient uptake (i.e., height and δ15N) caused trait-based divergence of N and NP plots from C and P plots. Functional trait-based composition patterns differed from species composition and lifeform abundance patterns, highlighting complexities of community response to nutrient enrichment. While trait-based functional alpha-diversity did not differ among nutrient treatments, it was positively correlated with biomass production, suggesting nutrients may impact functional alpha-diversity indirectly through increased productivity. Increased functional alpha-diversity could be a mechanism of co-existence emerging as productivity increases. These results have important implications for understanding how plant communities in low-productivity coastal systems are altered by fertilization.
  5. Free, publicly-accessible full text available February 25, 2023
  6. Low elevation coastal zones (LECZ) are extensive throughout the southeastern United States. LECZ communities are threatened by inundation from sea level rise, storm surge, wetland degradation, land subsidence, and hydrological flooding. Communication among scientists, stakeholders, policy makers and minority and poor residents must improve. We must predict processes spanning the ecological, physical, social, and health sciences. Communities need to address linkages of (1) human and socioeconomic vulnerabilities; (2) public health and safety; (3) economic concerns; (4) land loss; (5) wetland threats; and (6) coastal inundation. Essential capabilities must include a network to assemble and distribute data and model code to assess risk and its causes, support adaptive management, and improve the resiliency of communities. Better communication of information and understanding among residents and officials is essential. Here we review recent background literature on these matters and offer recommendations for integrating natural and social sciences. We advocate for a cyber-network of scientists, modelers, engineers, educators, and stakeholders from academia, federal state and local agencies, non-governmental organizations, residents, and the private sector. Our vision is to enhance future resilience of LECZ communities by offering approaches to mitigate hazards to human health, safety and welfare and reduce impacts to coastal residents and industries.