A complex-systems approach to predicting effects of sea level rise and nitrogen loading on nitrogen cycling in coastal wetland ecosystems

Laurel Larsen, Serena Moseman, Alyson E. Santoro, Kristine Hopfensperger, and Amy Burgin

Full Citation: Laurel Larsen, Serena Moseman, Alyson E. Santoro, Kristine Hopfensperger, and Amy Burgin. 2010. A complex-systems approach to predicting effects of sea level rise and nitrogen loading on nitrogen cycling in coastal wetland ecosystems, p. 67-92. In P.F. Kemp [ed.], Eco-DAS VIII Symposium Proceedings. ASLO. [doi:10.4319/ecodas.2010.978-0-9845591-1-4.67]

ABSTRACT: To effectively manage coastal ecosystems, we need an improved understanding of how tidal marsh ecosystem services will respond to sea-level rise and increased nitrogen (N) loading to coastal areas. Here we review existing literature to better understand how these interacting perturbations will likely impact N removal by tidal marshes. We propose that the key factors controlling long-term changes in N removal are plant-community changes, soil accretion rates, surface-subsurface flow paths, marsh geomorphology, microbial communities, and substrates for microbial reactions. Feedbacks affecting relative elevations and sediment accretion rates will serve as dominant controls on future N removal throughout the marsh. Given marsh persistence, we hypothesize that the processes dominating N removal will vary laterally across the marsh and longitudinally along the estuarine gradient. In salt marsh interiors, where nitrate reduction rates are often limited by delivery of nitrate to bacterial communities, reductions in groundwater discharge due to sea level rise may trigger a net reduction in N removal. In freshwater marshes, we expect a decrease in N removal efficiency due to increased sulfide concentrations. Sulfide encroachment will increase the relative importance of dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium and lead to greater bacterial nitrogen immobilization, ultimately resulting in an ecosystem that retains more N and is less effective at permanent N removal from the watershed. In contrast, we predict that sealevel–driven expansion of the tidal creek network and the degree of surface-subsurface exchange flux through tidal creek banks will result in greater N-removal efficiency from these locations.