Climate gradient-focused ecological research can provide a foundation for better understanding critical ecological transition points and nonlinear climate-ecological relationships, which is information that can be used to better understand, predict, and manage ecological responses to climate change. In this study, we examined the influence of freshwater availability upon the coverage of foundation plant species in coastal wetlands along a northwestern Gulf of Mexico rainfall gradient. Our research addresses the following three questions: (1) what are the region-scale relationships between measures of freshwater availability (e.g., rainfall, aridity, freshwater inflow, salinity) and the relative abundance of foundation plant species in tidal wetlands; (2) How vulnerable are foundation plant species in tidal wetlands to future changes in freshwater availability; and (3) What is the potential future relative abundance of tidal wetland foundation plant species under alternative climate change scenarios? We developed simple freshwater availability-based models to predict the relative abundance (i.e., coverage) of tidal wetland foundation plant species using climate data (1970-2000), estuarine freshwater inflow-focused data, and coastal wetland habitat data. Our results identify regional ecological thresholds and nonlinear relationships between measures of freshwater availability and the relative abundance of foundation plant species in tidal wetlands. In drier coastal zones, relatively small changes in rainfall could produce comparatively large landscape-scale changes in foundation plant species abundance which would affect some ecosystem good and services. Whereas a drier future would result in a decrease in the coverage of foundation plant species, a wetter future would result in an increase in foundation plant species coverage. In many ways, the freshwater-dependent coastal wetland ecological transitions we observed are analogous to those present in dryland terrestrial ecosystems.
Additional publication details
Freshwater availability and coastal wetland foundation species: ecological transitions along a rainfall gradient