Effects of Climate Change on Plants and their Ecosystems

Dr. Loraé Simpson Leads National Team Documenting Effects of Climate Change on Plants and their Ecosystems 

Global climate change is driving the expansion of mangroves into saltmarsh habitat in Florida, which may alter ecosystem processes through changes in ecosystem structure. 

An article titled, "Mangrove Encroachment Alters Decomposition Rate in Saltmarsh Through Changes in Litter Quality," was published September 18th in the journal Ecosystems by lead author Loraé Simpson, PhD, Director of Research at the Florida Oceanographic Society. Along with a team of researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, University of Alabama and University of Virginia, Dr. Simpson documented findings that compared the decomposition rate of mangrove and saltmarsh biomass in these shifting communities.

“Plants are the base of the food web and drive the carbon cycle, nutrient cycles and water cycles on which we rely,” Simpson said. “When the plant species change, everything else in the ecosystem may follow, and it is important to document the changes we are seeing at the local level.”

Plant leaf breakdown and turnover is an important driver of nutrient cycling in wetland ecosystems, and understanding how shifts in species communities will affect habitat processes is critical to understanding the fate of these systems under future climate change scenarios. The team’s one-year experiment, funded by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), was performed at five sites along the Atlantic coast of Florida, from Sebastian to St. Augustine. This latitudinal gradient was an ideal location for the study, being perfectly situated at the intersection of the two biomes, mangroves and saltmarsh.

The researchers compared soil and biomass nutrients and the breakdown of plant material between the habitats. They found that the environmental changes expected due to mangrove encroachment did not alter plant litter breakdown. Instead it was the shift in plant species biomass, which resulted in differences in litter quality available, that altered the breakdown of material in the system.

“Our study provides some evidence that the shifting of these species will not be detrimental to ecosystem nutrient cycling, and may actually provide the opportunity for climate change mitigation,” says Simpson. “Conserving and restoring our coastal wetlands can help humans adapt to climate change.”

With their unique structure and migration to higher latitudes caused by climate change, mangroves may help coasts keep pace with sea level rise, increase carbon dioxide sequestration from our atmosphere and combat severe weather events like hurricanes. Expansion of these natural barriers along the Atlantic coast may enhance the sustainability of coastal communities as they face impending changes in a warmer future.

Click HERE to read the full scientific paper.


For more information on this study, please contact:

Loraé T. Simpson, PhD

Director of Research

772.225.0505 x 114