BUMP Graduate Student Giovanna Nordio and Faculty Sergio Fagherazzi Featured in Water Resources Research!

BUMP Graduate Student Giovanna Nordio and Faculty Sergio Fagherazzi featured in Water Resources Research on storm surges and sea level rising in coastal forests. Read more here! Sea level rise and storm surges drive coastal forest retreat and salt marsh expansion. Both salinization and flooding control ecological zonation and ecosystem transition in coastal areas. Hydrological variables, if coupled with ecological surveys, can explain the different stages of coastal forest retreat and marsh encroachment. In this research, long-term data of a host of hydrological variables collected along transects from marsh to inner forest were analyzed. Linear discriminant analysis (LDA) was used to identify the primary hydrological variables responsible for the forest-marsh gradient and their seasonal patterns. Water content (WC) in the soil (WC) and groundwater electrical conductivity (EC) were found to be the main variables responsible for the hydrological differences among the sites. Higher values of WC and EC were found in the low-forest area near the salt marsh, with hydrological differences between forest levels reflected in ecological community structure. In particular, some sites were characterized by high EC while others by high WC values, suggesting significant spatial variations within hundreds of meters. The forested area, relatively flat in elevation, was characterized by limited hydraulic gradients and consequently lateral discharges. These characteristics made the role of groundwater level negligible in driving the hydrological clustering. Seasonal LDA data suggest that the sites are hydrologically different during winter (higher distance among clusters of variables) and similar during summer (low distance among clusters). In the study area, higher rainfall occurs during summer, decreasing groundwater EC in areas characterized by low canopy cover (dying forest). Rainfall moved low forest sites closer to the pristine high forest in the LDA analysis. During storm surge events, the distance between clusters decreased, indicating uniform salinization and flooding across the forest. Therefore, we conclude that ecological zonation in a coastal forest is reflected in seasonal hydrological differences in the absence of storm surges. Storm surges do not produce contrasting hydrological conditions and might not be responsible for ecological differences in the short-term. On the contrary, differences in hydrological recovery are responsible for forest zonation. An additional analysis carried out using a binary Marsh-Healthy forest LDA classifier indicates when each site switches from a forest hydrological state to a salt-marsh hydrological state. Our results are useful for long-term predictions of the ecological evolution of the forest–salt marsh ecotone.