Date of Award
Master of Science
As disturbance frequencies, intensities, and types have changed and continue to change in response to changing climate and land-use patterns, coastal communities undergo shifts in both species composition and dominant vegetation type. Over the past 100 years, fire suppression throughout the Northern Gulf of Mexico coast has resulted in shifts towards woody species dominance at the expense of marsh cover. Over the next 100 years, sea levels will rise and tropical storm activity is projected to increase; resultant changes in salinity could reduce cover of salt-intolerant fresh marsh species. Together, the effects of fire suppression upslope and rising salinities downslope could "squeeze" fresh marsh species, reducing cover and potentially threatening persistence. To mitigate the effects of fire suppression, the use of prescribed fire as a management tool to mimic historic conditions is becoming increasingly widespread and will likely gain further popularity during the 21st century. Ecological shifts that will result from changing disturbance regimes are unknown. It was hypothesized that two recent hurricanes, Ivan and Katrina in 2004 and 2005, respectively, and a prescribed fire, in 2010, differentially affected species along the estuarine gradient and drove overall shifts away from woody dominance. Overall community composition did not change significantly in the intermediate and fresh marsh zones. However, significant changes occurred in the salt and brackish marshes and in the woody-dominated fresh marsh-scrub ecotone zones. Relative to 2004, woody species abundance decreased significantly in all zones in 2006, following Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, and 2012, following the hurricanes and fire, though woody species regeneration in the marsh-scrub ecotone had begun to occur by 2012. It is hypothesized that interacting changes in fire and tropical storm regimes could release upslope areas from coastal squeezing.
This thesis is Open Access and may be downloaded by anyone.