FCE LTER Journal Articles


Saltwater intrusion and soil carbon loss: Testing effects of salinity and phosphorus loading on microbial functions in experimental freshwater wetlands


Wetlands can store significant amounts of carbon (C), but climate and land-use change increasingly threaten wetland C storage potential. Carbon stored in soils of freshwater coastal wetlands is vulnerable to rapid saltwater intrusion associated with sea-level rise and reduced freshwater flows. In the Florida Everglades, unprecedented saltwater intrusion is simultaneously exposing wetlands soils to elevated salinity and phosphorus (P), in areas where C-rich peat soils are collapsing. To determine how elevated salinity and P interact to influence microbial contributions to C loss, we continuously added P (~0.5 mg P d−1) and salinity (~6.9 g salt d−1) to freshwater Cladium jamaicense (sawgrass) peat monoliths for two years. We measured changes in porewater chemistry, microbial extracellular enzyme activities, respiration rates, microbial biomass, root litter breakdown rates (k), and soil elemental composition after short (57 d), intermediate- (392 d), and long-term (741 d) exposure. After 741 days, both β-1,4-glucosidase activity (P < 0.01) and β-1,4-cellobiosidase activity (P < 0.01) were reduced with added salinity in soils at 7.5–15 cm depth. Soil microbial biomass C decreased by 3.6× at 7.5–15 cm (P < 0.01) but not 0–7.5 cm depth (P > 0.05) with added salinity and was unaffected by added P. Soil respiration rates decreased after 372 d exposure to salinity (P = 0.05) and did not change with P exposure. Root litter k increased by 1.5× with added P and was unaffected by salinity exposure (P > 0.01). Soil %C decreased by approximately 1.3× after 741 days of salinity exposure compared to freshwater controls (P < 0.01). Elevated salinity and P accelerated wetland soil C loss primarily through leaching of DOC and increased root litter k. Our results indicate that freshwater wetland soils are sensitive to short- and long-term exposure to saltwater intrusion. Despite suppression of some soil microbial processes with added salinity, salt and P exposure appear to drive net C losses from coastal wetland soils.


Originally published in Geoderma.