Collaborative Research: Ecosystem Evolution and Sustainability of Nutrient Enriched Coastal Saltmarshes
Overview: Salt marshes provide a broad suite of critical ecosystem services but also face multiple anthropogenic threats including nutrient enrichment and accelerated sea-level rise. Complex interactions between primary production, decomposition, sedimentation, and sea level rise determine the tipping point relative to the rate of sea-level rise beyond which the marsh may convert to open water. Nitrate - the dominant form of coastal N-enrichment - acts as both a powerful electron acceptor stimulating microbial decomposition and as a fertilizer stimulating plant growth with the potential to transform saltmarshes through interactive feedbacks in key plant and microbial processes, potentially lowering the tipping point relative to sea-level rise. It is urgent that we understand the impacts of coastal enrichment on saltmarshes in part because of their globally rapid loss, and in part because salt marshes have become the focus of large-scale restoration strategies costing millions to billions of dollars to serve as storm buffers for coastal cities and as "blue" carbon pools to mitigate climate change. The TIDE saltmarsh experiment is a unique ecosystem-scale test of how nutrient enrichment affects ecosystem structure, function, and long-term sustainability. Contrary to well-accepted saltmarsh models, TIDE has shown that nutrients can drive saltmarsh loss; however, important questions about causality, and whether geomorphic and ecosystem function will continue to change or reach a new landscape equilibrium with nutrient loading, remain unanswered. Given the ongoing changes observed by the project to date, the PI will continue the experiment for a total of 13 years to address: (1) long-term landscape evolution (autocatalytic or self-limiting?), (2) plant mechanisms (Is environmental filtering selecting for plants with lower belowground biomass that are less flood tolerant?); (3) microbial mechanisms (Does NO3- remove resource limitation on the microbes and disproportionately stimulate creek bank denitrifiers/decomposers?); and (4) the consequences for ecosystem function (With loss of creek edge marsh, do saltmarshes retain less N?). The investigators will use a combination of whole-ecosystem experimental manipulations, genetic approaches, common garden experiments, and enriched 15N-NO3 - additions and delta 15N values in ecosystem components to understand mechanisms underlying ecosystem geomorphic and N cycle changes. This project incorporates new researchers to address questions of geomorphologic change, plant and microbial genetics, gene expression, whole-system ecosystem nutrient cycling, and denitrification. Intellectual Merit: This interdisciplinary project involving ecosystem, plant, microbial, biogeochemical, and geological researchers will test fundamental questions about controls on ecosystem structure and function and the long-term sustainability of nutrient enriched wetlands. Many detritus-based wetland ecosystems worldwide (boreal, tundra, salt- and fresh-water wetlands) are unexpectedly crossing tipping points suggesting there is a need to re-assess our theories and understanding on the nature and pace of their response to perturbation. Developing a predictive understanding of the controls on tipping points in natural ecosystems, and how these tipping points are altered by human activities, represents a major challenge in ecosystem science. Broader Impacts: The broader social impacts of this project lie in addressing a globally important issue, coastal eutrophication. The educational impacts include enhancing high school to graduate student interdisciplinary training through a structured rotation among disciplines and hands-on field research. New partnerships with minority serving institutions and a RUI women's college will engage urban, underprivileged and minority students. A whole-ecosystem experiment is supported as a living lab for education and research infrastructure for the scientific community. The MBL's Science Journalism Program and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge will be used to showcase the results to the public. Management outreach through workshops co-hosted with EPA and the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve will engage local, state and federal managers.