Potential effects of sea-level rise on plant productivity: Species-specific responses in northeast Pacific tidal marshes

Christopher N. Janousek, Kevin J. Buffington, Karen M. Thorne, Glenn R. Guntenspergen, John Y. Takekawa, Bruce D. Dugger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Coastal wetland plants are adapted to varying degrees of inundation. However, functional relationships between inundation and productivity are poorly characterized for most species. Determining species-specific tolerances to inundation is necessary to evaluate sea-level rise (SLR) effects on future marsh plant community composition, quantify organic matter inputs to marsh accretion, and inform predictive modeling of tidal wetland persistence. In 2 macrotidal estuaries in the northeast Pacific we grew 5 common species in experimental mesocosms across a gradient of tidal elevations to assess effects on growth. We also tested whether species abundance distributions along elevation gradients in adjacent marshes matched productivity profiles in the mesocosms. We found parabolic relationships between inundation and total plant biomass and shoot counts in Spartina foliosa and Bolboschoenus maritimus in California, USA, and in Carex lyngbyei in Oregon, USA, with maximum total plant biomass occurring at 38, 28, and 15% time submerged, respectively. However, biomass of Salicornia pacifica and Juncus balticus declined monotonically with increasing inundation. Inundation effects on the ratio of belowground to aboveground biomass varied inconsistently among species. In comparisons of field distributions with mesocosm results, B. maritimus, C. lyngbyei and J. balticus were abundant in marshes at or above elevations corresponding with their maximum productivity; however, S. foliosa and S. pacifica were frequently abundant at lower elevations corresponding with sub-optimal productivity. Our findings show species-level differences in how marsh plant growth may respond to future SLR and highlight the sensitivity of high marsh species such as S. pacifica and J. balticus to increases in flooding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-125
Number of pages15
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
StatePublished - Apr 21 2016


  • Marsh organs
  • Plant biomass
  • Root-to-shoot ratio
  • Tidal wetlands
  • Zonation

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