Floodplain forests of the Apalachicola River, Florida, are drier in composition today (2006) than they were before 1954, and drying is expected to continue for at least the next 50 years. Drier forest composition is probably caused by water-level declines that occurred as a result of physical changes in the main channel after 1954 and decreased flows in spring and summer months since the 1970s.
Forest plots sampled from 2004 to 2006 were compared to forests sampled in the late 1970s (1976-79) using a Floodplain Index (FI) based on species dominance weighted by the Floodplain Species Category, a value that represents the tolerance of tree species to inundation and saturation in the floodplain and consequently, the typical historic floodplain habitat for that species. Two types of analyses were used to determine forest changes over time: replicate plot analysis comparing present (2004-06) canopy composition to late 1970s canopy composition at the same locations, and analyses comparing the composition of size classes of trees on plots in late 1970s and in present forests. An example of a size class analysis would be a comparison of the composition of the entire canopy (all trees greater than 7.5 cm (centimeter) diameter at breast height (dbh)) to the composition of the large canopy tree size class (greater than or equal to 25 cm dbh) at one location. The entire canopy, which has a mixture of both young and old trees, is probably indicative of more recent hydrologic conditions than the large canopy, which is assumed to have fewer young trees.
Change in forest composition from the pre-1954 period to approximately 2050 was estimated by combining results from three analyses. The composition of pre-1954 forests was represented by the large canopy size class sampled in the late 1970s. The average FI for canopy trees was 3.0 percent drier than the average FI for the large canopy tree size class, indicating that the late 1970s forests were 3.0 percent drier than pre-1954 forests. The change from the late 1970s to the present was based on replicate plot analysis. The composition of 71 replicate plots sampled from 2004 to 2006 averaged 4.4 percent drier than forests sampled in the late 1970s. The potential composition of future forests (2050 or later) was estimated from the composition of the present subcanopy tree size class (less than 7.5 cm and greater than or equal to 2.5 cm dbh), which contains the greatest percentage of young trees and is indicative of recent hydrologic conditions. Subcanopy trees are the driest size class in present forests, with FIs averaging 31.0 percent drier than FIs for all canopy trees. Based on results from all three sets of data, present floodplain forests average 7.4 percent drier in composition than pre-1954 forests and have the potential to become at least 31.0 percent drier in the future. An overall total change in floodplain forests to an average composition 38.4 percent drier than pre-1954 forests is expected within approximately 50 years.
The greatest effects of water-level decline have occurred in tupelo-cypress swamps where forest composition has become at least 8.8 percent drier in 2004-06 than in pre-1954 years. This change indicates that a net loss of swamps has already occurred in the Apalachicola River floodplain, and further losses are expected to continue over the next 50 years. Drying of floodplain forests will result in some low bottomland hardwood forests changing in composition to high bottomland hardwood forests. The composition of high bottomland hardwoods will also change, although periodic flooding is still occurring and will continue to limit most of the floodplain to bottomland hardwood species that are adapted to at least short periods of inundation and saturation.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Drying of Floodplain Forests Associated with Water-Level Decline in the Apalachicola River, Florida - Interim Results, 2006