Shifting baselines in coastal forests: Rising seas transform plant communities from the ‘ground’ up

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Increases in the rate of sea level rise are likely to result in changes to disturbance-adapted coastal forests and associated freshwater resources over the next several decades. In this study, we investigated how the press disturbance of two decades of sea level rise altered island hydrology and interacted with pulse disturbances (frequent hurricane impacts) to alter coastal forest composition and structure. The research was conducted on two low-elevation islands located within the lower Florida Keys: Big Pine and Upper Sugarloaf Keys. Groundwater salinity and vegetation structure and composition were sampled in the early 1990s prior to impact from two hurricanes – Hurricanes Georges (1998) and Wilma (2005) – and again in 2012/2013 in permanent plots inside and outside the boundaries of the islands’ freshwater lenses. Using linear mixed effects modeling, we examined whether groundwater salinity varied over time among locations, and investigated whether this variation was reflected in changes in forest structure and composition in three height strata. The results of this analysis revealed that groundwater salinity underlying plots outside the freshwater lens increased over the two decades, while salinity of groundwater at plots inside the freshwater lens remained stable. The greatest shift in composition occurred in the understory strata along a gradient of increasing salinity, and plots located outside the freshwater lens gained species typical of tidally-influenced buttonwood forest and lost glycophytic species. Viewed against the background of recurring hurricane impacts, these findings suggest that sea level rise is currently altering both groundwater resources and the composition of coastal forests in the Florida Keys. Similar dynamics should be observed in low-lying coastal forests within ocean basins subject to increased tropical cyclone activity. Management of these island coastal forests must now consider the continually shifting nature of the resource in light of acceleration in sea level rise.



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