Salt marsh structure and function, and consequently ability to support a range of species and to provide ecosystem services, may be affected by climate change. To better understand how salt marshes will respond to warming and associated shifts in precipitation, we conducted a manipulative experiment in a tidal salt marsh in Massachusetts, USA. We exposed two plant communities (one dominated by Spartina patensDistichlis spicata and one dominated by short form Spartina alterniflora) to five climate manipulations: warming via passive open-topped chambers, doubled precipitation, warming and doubled precipitation, extreme drought via rainout shelter, and ambient conditions. Modest daytime warming increased total aboveground biomass of the S. alterniflora community (24%), but not the S. patens–D. spicata community. Warming also increased maximum stem heights of S. alterniflora (8%), S. patens (8%), and D. spicata (15%). Decomposition was marginally accelerated by warming in the S. alterniflora community. Drought markedly increased total biomass of the S. alterniflora community (53%) and live S. patens (69%), perhaps by alleviating waterlogging of sediments. Decomposition was accelerated by increased precipitation and slowed by drought, particularly in the S. patens–D. spicata community. Flowering phenology responded minimally to the treatments, and pore water salinity, sulfide, ammonium, and phosphate concentrations showed no treatment effects in either plant community. Our results suggest that these salt marsh communities may be resilient to modest amounts of warming and large changes in precipitation. If production increases under climate change, marshes will have a greater ability to keep pace with sea-level rise, although an increase in decomposition could offset this. As long as marshes are not inundated by flooding due to sea-level rise, increases in aboveground biomass and stem heights suggest that marshes may continue to export carbon and nutrients to coastal waters and may be able to increase their carbon storage capability by increasing plant growth under future climate conditions.


Copyright by the Ecological Society of America, Charles, H., Dukes, J.S. 2009. Effects of warming and altered precipitation on plant and nutrient dynamics of a New England salt marsh. Ecological Applications. 19: 1758-1773.


altered precipitation, climate change, decomposition, Distichlis spicata;, ecosystem services, nutrient cycling, open-topped chamber, salt marsh, Spartina alterniflora;, Spartina patens

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