Latitudinal trends in Spartina alterniflora productivity and the response of coastal marshes to global change


Matthew L. Kirwan, tel. +1 540 808 5443, fax +1 434 924 4761, e-mail:


Marshes worldwide are actively degrading in response to increased sea level rise rates and reduced sediment delivery, though the growth rate of vegetation plays a critical role in determining their stability. We have compiled 56 measurements of aboveground annual productivity for Spartina alterniflora, the dominant macrophyte in North American coastal wetlands. Our compilation indicates a significant latitudinal gradient in productivity, which we interpret to be determined primarily by temperature and/or the length of growing season. Simple linear regression yields a 27 g m−2 yr−1 increase in productivity with an increase of mean annual temperature by 1 °C. If temperatures warm 2–4 °C over the next century, then marsh productivity may increase by 10–40%, though physiological research suggests that increases in the north could potentially be offset by some decreases in the south. This increase in productivity is roughly equivalent to estimates of marsh lost due to future sea level change. If a warming-induced stimulation of vegetation growth will enhance vertical accretion and limit erosion, then the combined effects of global change may be to increase the total productivity and ecosystem services of tidal wetlands, at least in northern latitudes.