28 Jul

Twenty-first century climate change and SAV in the Chesapeake Bay

What does the future hold for the Chesapeake Bay?  We attempted to address part of this question in our new article.

Introduction: The Chesapeake Bay was once renowned for expansive meadows of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). However, only 10% of the original meadows survive.  Future restoration efforts will be complicated by accelerating climate change, including physiological stressors such as a predicted mean temperature increase of 2–6°C and a 50–160% increase in CO2 concentrations.

Outcomes: As the Chesapeake Bay begins to exhibit characteristics of a subtropical estuary, summer heat waves will become more frequent and severe. Warming alone would eventually eliminate eelgrass (Zostera marina) from the region. It will favor native heat-tolerant species such as widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) while facilitating colonization by non-native seagrasses (e.g., Halodule spp.). Intensifying human activity will also fuel coastal zone acidification and the resulting high CO2/low pH conditions may benefit SAV via a “CO2 fertilization effect.”

Discussion: Acidification is known to offset the effects of thermal stress and may have similar effects in estuaries, assuming water clarity is sufficient to support CO2-stimulated photosynthesis and plants are not overgrown by epiphytes. However, coastal zone acidification is variable, driven mostly by local biological processes that may or may not always counterbalance the effects of regional warming. This precarious equipoise between two forces – thermal stress and acidification – will be critically important because it may ultimately determine the fate of cool-water plants such as Zostera marina in the Chesapeake Bay.

Conclusion: The combined impacts of warming, coastal zone acidification, water clarity, and overgrowth of competing algae will determine the fate of SAV communities in rapidly changing temperate estuaries.