Black mangrove (Avicennia sp.) colony expansion in the Gulf of Mexico with climate change : implications for wetland health and resistance to rising sea levels
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Populations of black mangroves (Avicennia sp.) are hypothesized to expand their latitudinal range with global climate change in the 21st century, induced by a reduction in the frequency and severity of coastal freezes, which are known to limit mangrove colony extent and individual tree size, as well as an overall warmer climate. The Gulf of Mexico is located at the northward limit of black mangrove habitat and is therefore a prime candidate for population expansion with global warming. This expansion may come at the expense of existing Gulf coastal saline wetlands that are dominantly Spartina spp. marsh grasses. The present study was conducted to focus, not on the extent to date of this replacement, but to examine the potential implications of a marsh to mangrove transition in Gulf wetlands, specifically 1) resistance to accelerating eustatic sea level rise (ESLR) rates, 2) wetland resistance to wave attack in large storms (increased cyclonic storm frequency/intensity is predicted with future climate warming), and 3) organic carbon sequestration and wetland soil geochemistry. Field sites of adjacent and intergrown Avicennia mangrove and Spartina marsh populations in similar geomorphological setting were selected in back-barrier areas near Port Aransas and Galveston, TX (two sites each) as part of a larger-scale planned study of the full latitudinal transition of the western Gulf funded by the National Institute for Climate Change Research (U.S. Department of Energy). The reconnaissance conducted for site surveys show that black mangrove populations in this part of Texas are clustered near inlet areas, suggesting seed transport vectors are a major control on colony establishment, and likely, on the potential rapidity of wetland habitat replacement. Resistance to ESLR was tested by 1) creating high-accuracy (±1 cm) elevation maps over ~5,000 m² areas of adjacent mangrove and marsh areas, and 2) measuring mineral and organic matter accumulation rates (Pb/Cs radiotracer geochronology, loss on ignition) from auger cores. Elevation surveys in Port Aransas indicate mangrove vegetated areas are 4 cm higher in elevation than surrounding marsh on an average regional scale, and 1 to 2 cm higher at the individual mangrove scale: at the Galveston sites, any trend is complicated by the area's pre-existing geomorphology and the relative youth of the mangrove colonies. ¹³⁷Cs accumulation rates and loss on ignition data indicate that mineral trapping is 4.1 times higher and sediment organics are 1.7 times lower in mangroves at Port Aransas; no such definable trends exist at the Galveston sites or in calculated ²¹⁰Pb sediment accumulation rates. This additional mineral particle trapping in mangroves does not differ in grain size character from marsh mineral accumulation. Elevation change may also be effected by root volume displacement: live root weight measurements in the rooted horizon (~0 to 20 cm depth) are consistently higher in mangrove cores from Port Aransas and the site at the west end of Galveston Island. Port Aransas porosities are lower in mangrove rooted horizons, with a corresponding increase in sediment strength (measured by shear vane in the cores), suggesting mangrove intervals may be more resistant to wave-induced erosion during storm events. Port Aransas mangroves exhibit higher pore water redox potentials and salinities over entire core depths and depressed pH over rooted intervals, suggesting a distinct diagenetic environment exists relative to marsh sites. Increased salinities and higher redox potentials may be a function of the rooting network, which introduces oxygen into the sediment and focuses evapo-transpiration and salt exclusion within this zone: this may prove advantageous when competing with marsh grasses by elevating salinities to levels that are toxic for Spartina. Trends observed in the more mature systems of Port Aransas are generally absent at the Galveston sites, suggesting the youth and physically shorter stature of these systems means they have not yet established a unique sediment signature.