Fire Ecology, 2013
Volume 9, Issue 1
Dynamics of Mangrove-Marsh Ecotones in Subtropical Coastal Wetlands: Fire, Sea-Level Rise, and Water Levels
Authors: Thomas J. Smith III, Ann M. Foster, Ginger Tiling-Range, and John W. Jones
Ecotones are areas of sharp environmental gradients between two or more homogeneous vegetation types. They are a dynamic aspect of all landscapes and are also responsive to climate change. Shifts in the position of an ecotone across a landscape can be an indication of a changing environment. In the coastal Everglades of Florida, USA, a dominant ecotone type is that of mangrove forest and marsh. However, there is a variety of plants that can form the marsh component, including sawgrass (Cladium mariscus [L.] Pohl), needlegrass rush (Juncus roemerianus Scheele), and spikerush (Eleocharis spp.). Environmental factors including water depth, soil type, and occurrence of fires vary across these ecotones, influencing their dynamics. Altered freshwater inflows from upstream and increasing sea level over the past 100 years may have also had an impact. We analyzed a time series of historical aerial photographs for a number of sites in the coastal Everglades and measured change in position of mangrove–marsh ecotones. For three sites, detailed maps were produced and the area of marsh, mangrove, and other habitats was determined for five periods spanning the years 1928 to 2004. Contrary to our initial hypothesis on fire, we found that fire did not prevent mangrove expansion into marsh areas but may in fact assist mangroves to invade some marsh habitats, especially sawgrass. Disparate patterns in mangrove–marsh change were measured at two downstream sites, both of which had multiple fires over from 1948 to 2004. No change in mangrove or marsh area was measured at one site. Mangrove area increased and marsh area decreased at the second of these fire-impacted sites. We measured a significant increase in mangrove area and a decline in marsh area at an upstream site that had little occurrence of fire. At this site, water levels have increased significantly as sea level has risen, and this has probably been a factor in the mangrove expansion.