Macroclimatic change expected to transform coastal wetland ecosystems this century

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

Abstract

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.

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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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Christopher A. Gabler.

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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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3203

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