Virginia Institute of Marine Science
The impacts of climate change on ecosystems are manifested in how organisms respond to episodic and continuous stressors. The conversion of coastal forests to salt marshes represents a prominent example of ecosystem state change, driven by the continuous stress of sea-level rise (press), and episodic storms (pulse). Here, we measured the rooting dimension and fall direction of 143 windthrown eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) trees in a rapidly retreating coastal forest in Chesapeake Bay (USA). We found that tree roots were distributed asymmetrically away from the leading edge of soil salinization and towards freshwater sources. The length, number, and circumference of roots were consistently higher in the upslope direction than downslope direction, suggesting an active morphological adaptation to sea-level rise and salinity stress. Windthrown trees consistently fell in the upslope direction regardless of aspect and prevailing wind direction, suggesting that asymmetric rooting destabilized standing trees, and reduced their ability to withstand high winds. Together, these observations help explain curious observations of coastal forest resilience, and highlight an interesting nonadditive response to climate change, where adaptation to press stressors increases vulnerability to pulse stressors.
oastal storms; disturbance; ecosystem response; Juniperus viriginiana; salinization; sea-level rise
Messerschmidt, Tyler C.; Langston, Amy K.; and Kirwan, Matthew L., Asymmetric root distributions reveal press–pulse responses in retreating coastal forests (2021). Ecology.