Barrier island community change: What controls it?

Friday, 19 December 2014
Benjamin Dows, Donald Young and Julie Zinnert, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, United States
Conversion from grassland to woody dominated communities has been observed globally. In recent decades, this pattern has been observed in coastal communities along the mid-Atlantic U.S. In coastal environments, a suite of biotic and abiotic factors interact as filters to determine plant community structure and distribution. Microclimatic conditions: soil and air temperature, soil moisture and salinity, and light attenuation under grass cover were measured across a grassland-woody encroachment gradient on a Virginia barrier island; to identify the primary factors that mediate this change. Woody establishment was associated with moderately dense (2200 shoots/m2) grass cover, but reduced at high (> 6200 shoots/ m2) and low (< 1250 shoots/ m2) densities. Moderately dense grass cover reduced light attenuation (82.50 % reduction) to sufficiently reduce soil temperature thereby limiting soil moisture evaporation. However, high grass density reduced light attenuation (98.7 % reduction) enough to inhibit establishment of woody species; whereas low grass density attenuated much less light (48.7 % reduction) which allowed for greater soil moisture evaporation. Soil salinity was dynamic as rainfall, tidal inundation, and sea spray produce spatiotemporal variation throughout the barrier island landscape. The importance of light and temperature were compounded as they also indirectly affect soil salinity via their affects on soil moisture. Determining how these biotic and abiotic factors relate to sea level rise and climate change will improve understanding coastal community response as global changes proceed. Understanding how community shifts affect ecosystem function and their potential to affect adjacent systems will also improve predictive ability of coastal ecosystem responses.