- Coastal marsh vegetation is an important component in maintaining marsh stability that is threatened by changes in sedimentation, sea level rise, natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and competition from invasive species. Vegetation has been demonstrated to reduce wave energy, increase sedimentation, and decrease erosion in tidal environments under a range of conditions. Similarities and differences between the morphology of vegetation species may play an important role in understanding the mechanism between vegetation, sedimentation, and wave energy. Diversity of species within vegetation communities has been shown to reduce the success of biological invasions from invasive species as well as increase the ability of the community to adapt to environmental changes such as inundation period (period of time vegetation is submerged partially or fully by water).
The species present along coastal marshes and specifically at the interface between vegetated marsh and unvegetated mudflat provide an opportunity to better understand the interactions between vegetation and its physical setting. In this dissertation I focus on the species and vegetation communities that are present at this interface of the terrestrial and aquatic boundary to better understand how plant communities may be characterized, how they respond to disturbance, how they are distributed, and how they may influence the physical environment in which they grow. In Chapter two, I explore the ability to use image analysis and the lateral obstruction of vegetation to describe a species density, height and diameter and evaluate the tradeoffs in using image analysis over more traditional methods. In Chapter three, I evaluate the response of an emergent vegetation species, threesquare bulrush (Schoenoplectus pungens), to different depths of complete burial as could be expected from extreme storms, hurricanes, tsunamis, or restoration efforts involving sediment amendment. Chapter four describes the distribution of coastal marsh communities of the Laurentian Great Lakes along an elevational gradient beginning at the terrestrial and aquatic boundary, identifying patterns of wetland distribution, species composition, and exotic plant invasion. In Chapter five, I conclude the dissertation with an evaluation of the effects of two morphologically distinct species of emergent marsh vegetation, threesquare bulrush and Lyngbye’s sedge (Carex lyngbyei), on the sedimentation rate and variability in Tillamook Bay, OR and compare the results to the current understanding of vegetation-sediment feedback.
In Chapter two, I found that for morphologically simple species, such as S. pungens, image analysis of lateral obstruction can be used to determine important morphological characteristics of a stand of vegetation including the mean stem height, density, and mean diameter. The method provides a description of the vertical variation in morphologic structure, providing a rapid analytic tool for exploring the effects of vegetation on wave and sediment interaction. However, I note that more morphologically complex species, such as sedges and grasses may not be as easily described using image analysis.
In Chapter three, I determined that aboveground biomass of S. pungens would return to pre-disturbance levels following burial by up to 40 cm of mineral sediment after two years. Vegetation was observed to survive burials depths of up to 80 cm, although initially at much lower density. The aboveground height of stems were statistically similar to unburied controls after two years, which is important for the continuation of ecosystem services such as wave attenuation. The results suggest that S. pungens is capable of returning to pre-disturbance levels of biomass following large natural sedimentation events such as extreme storms, hurricanes, or tsunamis, and that burying portions of marshes with sediment as a restoration tool is not likely to harm the buried vegetation.
In Chapter four I refine and describe 21 coastal vegetation communities in the Laurentian Great Lakes and the ecological gradients along which they are distributed. Latitude, agricultural intensity, site geomorphology, substrate, and water depth were found to be the significant variables that determined community distribution. Additionally, we observed an expansion of invasive plant species near areas of high anthropogenic activity such as farms and urban centers.
In Chapter five, I found that there were species-specific differences in sedimentation rate and variability in Tillamook Bay, OR. Schoenoplectus pungens was found to retain more sediment than C. lyngbyei. Sedimentation rate was observed to be variable by location within the estuary. Two patterns of sediment accumulation were observed. The first occurred along vegetation gradients, with increased sedimentation farther into vegetation beds. In the second pattern, sediment accumulation was observed to be greatest at the marsh/mudflat boundary where vegetation was dense and then decreased with increasing depth into the vegetation.
In conclusion, this dissertation explores the interaction of emergent wetland vegetation with environmental factors. Image analysis provides a new tool for rapid characterization of vegetation structure, a burial experiment documents Schoenoplectus pungens’ tolerance to sand burial, a field study at Tillamook, OR documents the relationship between sediment accumulation and emergent vegetation beds, and a wetland classification is developed for coastal wetlands along the Great Lakes, which includes plant communities dominated by S. pungens.