Severe droughts reduce estuarine primary productivity with cascading effects on higher trophic levels

Michael S. Wetz, Emily A. Hutchinson, Ross S. Lunetta, Hans W. Paerl and J. Christopher Taylor

Limnol. Oceanogr., 56(2), 2011, 627-638 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2011.56.2.0627

ABSTRACT: Using a 10-yr time-series data set, we analyzed the effects of two severe droughts on water-quality and ecosystem processes in a temperate, eutrophic estuary (Neuse River Estuary, North Carolina). During the droughts, dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentrations were on average 46–68% lower than the long-term mean due to reduced riverine input. Phytoplankton productivity and biomass were slightly below average for most of the estuary during a spring–autumn drought in 2002, but were dramatically lower than average throughout the estuary during an autumn–winter drought in 2007–2008. Droughts affected upper trophic levels through alteration of both habitat condition (i.e., bottom-water dissolved oxygen levels) and food availability. Bottom-water dissolved oxygen levels were near or slightly above average during the 2002 drought and during summer 2007. Concomitant with these modest improvements in bottom-water oxygen condition, fish kills were greatly reduced relative to the long-term average. Low-oxygen bottom-water conditions were more pronounced during summer 2008 in the latter stages of the 2007–2008 drought, and mesozooplankton abundances were eight-fold lower in summer 2008 than during nondrought years. Below-average mesozooplankton abundances persisted for well over 1 yr beyond cessation of the drought. Significant fish kills were observed in summer 2008 and 2009, perhaps due to the synergistic effects of hypoxia and reduced food availability. These results indicate that droughts can exert both ephemeral and prolonged multiyear influence on estuarine ecosystem processes and provide a glimpse into the future, when many regions of the world are predicted to face increased drought frequency and severity due to climate change.

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