Macroclimatic change expected to transform coastal wetland ecosystems this century

  • An Erratum to this article was published on 02 March 2017


Coastal wetlands, existing at the interface between land and sea, are highly vulnerable to climate change1,2,3. Macroclimate (for example, temperature and precipitation regimes) greatly influences coastal wetland ecosystem structure and function4,5. However, research on climate change impacts in coastal wetlands has concentrated primarily on sea-level rise and largely ignored macroclimatic drivers, despite their power to transform plant community structure6,7,8,9,10,11,12 and modify ecosystem goods and services5,13. Here, we model wetland plant community structure based on macroclimate using field data collected across broad temperature and precipitation gradients along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast. Our analyses quantify strongly nonlinear temperature thresholds regulating the potential for marsh-to-mangrove conversion. We also identify precipitation thresholds for dominance by various functional groups, including succulent plants and unvegetated mudflats. Macroclimate-driven shifts in foundation plant species abundance will have large effects on certain ecosystem goods and services5,14,15,16. Based on current and projected climatic conditions, we project that transformative ecological changes are probable throughout the region this century, even under conservative climate scenarios. Coastal wetland ecosystems are functionally similar worldwide, so changes in this region are indicative of potential future changes in climatically similar regions globally.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Four plant functional groups dominate tidal saline wetlands across the northern Gulf of Mexico coast.
Figure 2: Distribution of tidal saline wetland plant functional groups across elevation gradients in ten estuaries spanning the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Figure 3: Nonlinear relationships between macroclimate and tidal saline wetland plant community structure.
Figure 4: Distributions of the dominant plant functional groups in northern Gulf of Mexico tidal saline wetlands along macroclimatic gradients.
Figure 5: Distributions of plant functional groups and vegetation height along macroclimatic gradients, with representations of current climatic and alternative low-emission future climatic conditions for select coastal reaches in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Change history

  • 06 February 2017

    In the original version of this Letter in the legend of Figure 2, 'algal mats' was misspelt. This error has been corrected in the online versions.


  1. 1

    Gedan, K. B., Silliman, B. R. & Bertness, M. D. Centuries of human-driven change in salt marsh ecosystems. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 1, 117–141 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    McKee, K., Rogers, K. & Saintilan, N. in Global Change and the Function and Distribution of Wetlands: Global Change Ecology and Wetlands (ed. Middleton, B. A.) 63–96 (Springer, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Morris, J. T., Sundareshwar, P. V., Nietch, C. T., Kjerfve, B. & Cahoon, D. R. Responses of coastal wetlands to rising sea level. Ecology 83, 2869–2877 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Whittaker, R. H. Communities and Ecosystems (Macmillan, 1975).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Osland, M. J. et al. Beyond just sea-level rise: considering macroclimatic drivers within coastal wetland vulnerability assessments to climate change. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 1–11 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Osland, M. J., Enwright, N., Day, R. H. & Doyle, T. W. Winter climate change and coastal wetland foundation species: salt marshes vs. mangrove forests in the southeastern United States. Glob. Change Biol. 19, 1482–1494 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Cavanaugh, K. C. et al. Poleward expansion of mangroves is a threshold response to decreased frequency of extreme cold events. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 723–727 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Cavanaugh, K. C. et al. Integrating physiological threshold experiments with climate modeling to project mangrove species’ range expansion. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1928–1938 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Saintilan, N., Wilson, N. C., Rogers, K., Rajkaran, A. & Krauss, K. W. Mangrove expansion and salt marsh decline at mangrove poleward limits. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 147–157 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Alongi, D. M. The impact of climate change on mangrove forests. Curr. Clim. Change Rep. 1, 30–39 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Montagna, P., Gibeaut, J. & Tunnell, J. W. J. in The Changing Climate of South Texas 1900–2100: Problems and Prospects, Impacts and Implications—CREST-RESSACA (eds Norwine, J. & Kuruvilla, J.) 57–77 (Texas A&M Univ., 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Osland, M. J., Enwright, N. & Stagg, C. L. Freshwater availability and coastal wetland foundation species: ecological transitions along a rainfall gradient. Ecology 95, 2789–2802 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Ellison, A. M. et al. Loss of foundation species: consequences for the structure and dynamics of forested ecosystems. Front. Ecol. Environ. 3, 479–486 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Bianchi, T. S. et al. Historical reconstruction of mangrove expansion in the Gulf of Mexico: linking climate change with carbon sequestration in coastal wetlands. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. 119, 7–16 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Doughty, C. L. et al. Mangrove range expansion rapidly increases coastal wetland carbon storage. Estuar. Coast. 39, 385–396 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Yando, E. S. et al. Salt marsh-mangrove ecotones: using structural gradients to investigate the effects of woody plant encroachment on plant-soil interactions and ecosystem carbon pools. J. Ecol. 104, 1020–1031 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Ecosystems and Human Well-Being—Synthesis Report (World Resources Institute, 2005).

  18. 18

    Barbier, E. B. et al. The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services. Ecol. Monogr. 81, 169–193 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    De Groot, R. et al. Global estimates of the value of ecosystems and their services in monetary units. Ecosys. Serv. 1, 50–61 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Glick, P., Stein, B. & Edelson, N. Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (National Wildlife Federation, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Twilley, R. R. & Day, J. W. in Estuarine Ecology (eds Day, J. W., Crump, B. C., Kemp, M. W. & Yanez-Arancibia, A.) 165–202 (Wiley, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Pennings, S. C., Siska, E. L. & Bertness, M. D. Latitudinal differences in plant palatability in Atlantic coast salt marshes. Ecology 82, 1344–1359 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Zedler, J. The Ecology of Southern California Coastal Salt Marshes: A Community Profile FWS/OBS-81/54 (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1982).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Guo, H. Y., Zhang, Y. H., Lan, Z. J. & Pennings, S. C. Biotic interactions mediate the expansion of black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) into salt marshes under climate change. Glob. Change Biol. 19, 2765–2774 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Armitage, A. R., Highfield, W. E., Brody, S. D. & Louchouarn, P. The contribution of mangrove expansion to salt marsh loss on the Texas Gulf Coast. PLoS ONE 10, e0125404 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Osland, M. J. et al. Mangrove expansion and contraction at a poleward range limit: climate extremes and land-ocean temperature gradients. Ecology 98, 125–137 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Eslami-Andargoli, L., Dale, P., Sipe, N. & Chaseling, J. Mangrove expansion and rainfall patterns in Moreton Bay, southeast Queensland, Australia. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. 85, 292–298 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Kirwan, M. L. & Megonigal, J. P. Tidal wetland stability in the face of human impacts and sea-level rise. Nature 504, 53–60 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Krauss, K. W. et al. How mangrove forests adjust to rising sea level. New Phytol. 202, 19–34 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Kirwan, M. L., Temmerman, S., Skeehan, E. E., Guntenspergen, G. R. & Fagherazzi, S. Overestimation of marsh vulnerability to sea level rise. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 253–260 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    VDatum Version 3.4 (NOAA, 2015);

  32. 32

    Daly, C. et al. Physiographically sensitive mapping of climatological temperature and precipitation across the conterminous United States. Int. J. Climatol. 28, 2031–2064 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State Univ. (2015);

  34. 34

    Frazier, A. E. & Wang, L. Modeling landscape structure response across a gradient of land cover intensity. Landsc. Ecol. 28, 233–246 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Hufkens, K., Ceulemans, R. & Scheunders, P. Estimating the ecotone width in patchy ecotones using a sigmoid wave approach. Ecol. Inform. 3, 97–104 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Tomlinson, P. B. The Botany of Mangroves (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Flowers, T. J., Troke, P. F. & Yeo, A. R. The mechanism of salt tolerance in halophytes. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. 28, 89–121 (1977).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Khan, M. A., Ungar, I. A. & Showalter, A. M. The effect of salinity on the growth, water status, and ion content of a leaf succulent perennial halophyte, Suaeda fruticosa (L.) Forssk. J. Arid. Environ. 45, 73–84 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Lot-Helgueras, A., Vázquez-Yanes, C. & Menendez, F. in Proceedings of the International Symposium on Biology and Management of Mangroves (eds Walsh, G. E., Snedaker, S. C. & Teas, H. J.) 52–64 (Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Univ. Florida, 1975).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Méndez-Alonzo, R., López-Portillo, J. & Rivera-Monroy, V. H. Latitudinal variation in leaf and tree traits of the mangrove Avicennia germinans (Avicenniaceae) in the central region of the Gulf of Mexico. Biotropica 40, 449–456 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41

    Lugo, A. E. & Patterson-Zucca, C. The impact of low temperature stress on mangrove structure and growth. Trop. Ecol. 18, 149–161 (1977).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Madrid, E. N., Armitage, A. R. & López-Portillo, J. Avicennia germinans (black mangrove) vessel architecture is linked to chilling and salinity tolerance in the Gulf of Mexico. Front. Plant Sci. 5, 00503 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    National Wetlands Inventory (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2015);

  44. 44

    IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  45. 45

    Abatzoglou, J. T. Development of gridded surface meteorological data for ecological applications and modelling. Int. J. Climatol. 33, 121–131 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46

    Livneh, B. et al. A long-term hydrologically based dataset of land surface fluxes and states for the conterminous United States: update and extensions. J. Clim. 26, 9384–9392 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful for the support of the US Department of the Interior South Central Climate Science Center, US Geological Survey’s Ecosystems Mission Area, US Geological Survey’s Climate and Land Use Change R&D Program, Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and the University of Houston. For facilitating our field collections, we thank Padre Island National Seashore, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, King Ranch, Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, Hillsborough County, Manatee County, multiple US Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuges, and multiple National Estuarine Research Reserves. C.A.G. thanks J. Gabler for numerical modelling assistance. We thank K. Krauss for a thoughtful manuscript review. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Author information




All authors helped design the project and data collection protocols. C.A.G., M.J.O., A.S.F., M.L.M., J.L.M., N.M.E., R.H.D. and S.B.H. collected the data. C.A.G. analysed the data and created the figures. C.A.G. and M.J.O. wrote the first manuscript draft, and all authors contributed to revisions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher A. Gabler.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 7047 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Gabler, C., Osland, M., Grace, J. et al. Macroclimatic change expected to transform coastal wetland ecosystems this century. Nature Clim Change 7, 142–147 (2017).

Download citation

Further reading