The alteration of fresh and marine water cycling is likely to occur in coastal ecosystems as climate change causes the global redistribution of precipitation while simultaneously driving sea-level rise at a rate of 2–3 mm yr−1. Here, we examined how precipitation alters the ecological effects of ocean water intrusion to coastal dunes on two oceanic carbonate islands in the Bahamas. The approach was to compare sites that receive high and low annual rainfall and are also characterized by seasonal distribution (wet and dry season) of precipitation. The spatial and temporal variations in precipitation serve as a proxy for conditions of altered precipitation which may occur via climate change. We used the natural abundances of stable isotopes to identify water sources (e.g., precipitation, groundwater and ocean water) in the soil–plant continuum and modeled the depth of plant water uptake. Results indicated that decreased rainfall caused the shallow freshwater table on the dune ecosystem to sink and contract towards the inland, the lower freshwater head allowed ocean water to penetrate into the deeper soils, while shallow soils became exceedingly dry. Plants at the drier site that lived nearest to the ocean responded by taking up water from the deeper and consistently moist soil layers where ocean water intruded. Towards the inland, decreased rainfall caused the water table to sink to a depth that precluded both recharge to the upper soil layers and access by plants. Consequently, plants captured water in more shallow soils recharged by infrequent rainfall events. The results demonstrate dune ecosystems on oceanic islands are more susceptible to ocean water intrusion when annual precipitation decreases. Periods of diminished precipitation caused drought conditions, increased exposure to saline marine water and altered water-harvesting strategies. Quantifying species tolerances to ocean water intrusion and drought are necessary to determine a threshold of community sustainability.
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