Salt marshes and eutrophication: An unsustainable outcome

Turner, R. Eugene, Brian L. Howes, John M. Teal, Charles S. Milan, Erick M. Swenson, Dale D. Goehringer-Toner

Limnol. Oceanogr., 54(5), 2009, 1634-1642 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2009.54.5.1634

ABSTRACT: Most plant production by emergent coastal marshes occurs belowground. This belowground production adds to the accumulation of organic matter sustaining salt marshes as sea level rises, thus preventing excessive flooding, eventual plant death, and habitat loss. The ubiquitous nutrient enrichment of coastal salt marshes stimulating aboveground plant growth may result in higher rates of inorganic matter accumulation that compensates for marsh flooding caused by sea level rise. Results from several short-term experiments, however, demonstrate that root and rhizome biomass and carbon accumulation is reduced with nutrient enrichment, suggesting that eutrophication of coastal waters may not be a compensatory counterbalance to the effects of global sea level rise on salt marshes. We show that the net effects of 36 yr of nutrient enrichment in replicated field experiments do not lead to higher organic or inorganic accumulation. Enrichment reduces organic matter belowground and may result in a significant loss in marsh elevation equivalent to about half the average global sea level rise rates. Sustaining and restoring coastal emergent marshes is more likely if they receive less, not more, nutrient loading.

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