Elevated CO2 enhances biological contributions to elevation change in coastal wetlands by offsetting stressors associated with sea-level rise


*Correspondence author. E-mail: julia.cherry@ua.edu


  • 1Sea-level rise, one indirect consequence of increasing atmospheric CO2, poses a major challenge to long-term stability of coastal wetlands. An important question is whether direct effects of elevated CO2 on the capacity of marsh plants to accrete organic material and to maintain surface elevations outweigh indirect negative effects of stressors associated with sea-level rise (salinity and flooding).
  • 2In this study, we used a mesocosm approach to examine potential direct and indirect effects of atmospheric CO2 concentration, salinity and flooding on elevation change in a brackish marsh community dominated by a C3 species, Schoenoplectus americanus, and a C4 grass, Spartina patens. This experimental design permitted identification of mechanisms and their role in controlling elevation change, and the development of models that can be tested in the field.
  • 3To test hypotheses related to CO2 and sea-level rise, we used conventional anova procedures in conjunction with structural equation modelling (SEM). SEM explained 78% of the variability in elevation change and showed the direct, positive effect of S. americanus production on elevation. The SEM indicated that C3 plant response was influenced by interactive effects between CO2 and salinity on plant growth, not a direct CO2 fertilization effect. Elevated CO2 ameliorated negative effects of salinity on S. americanus and enhanced biomass contribution to elevation.
  • 4The positive relationship between S. americanus production and elevation change can be explained by shoot-base expansion under elevated CO2 conditions, which led to vertical soil displacement. While the response of this species may differ under other environmental conditions, shoot-base expansion and the general contribution of C3 plant production to elevation change may be an important mechanism contributing to soil expansion and elevation gain in other coastal wetlands.
  • 5Synthesis. Our results revealed previously unrecognized interactions and mechanisms contributing to marsh elevation change, including amelioration of salt stress by elevated CO2 and the importance of plant production and shoot-base expansion for elevation gain. Identification of biological processes contributing to elevation change is an important first step in developing comprehensive models that permit more accurate predictions of whether coastal marshes will persist with continued sea-level rise or become submerged.