Degradation and resilience in Louisiana salt marshes after the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
ABSTRACT: More than 2 y have passed since the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, yet we still have little understanding of its ecological impacts. Examining effects of this oil spill will generate much-needed insight into how shoreline habitats and the valuable ecological services they provide (e.g., shoreline protection) are affected by and recover from large-scale disturbance. Here we report on not only rapid salt-marsh recovery (high resilience) but also permanent marsh area loss after the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Field observations, experimental manipulations, and wave-propagation modeling reveal that (i) oil coverage was primarily concentrated on the seaward edge of marshes; (ii) there were thresholds of oil coverage that were associated with severity of salt-marsh damage, with heavy oiling leading to plant mortality; (iii) oil-driven plant death on the edges of these marshes more than doubled rates of shoreline erosion, further driving marsh platform loss that is likely to be permanent; and (iv) after 18 mo, marsh grasses have largely recovered into previously oiled, noneroded areas, and the elevated shoreline retreat rates observed at oiled sites have decreased to levels at reference marsh sites. This paper highlights that heavy oil coverage on the shorelines of Louisiana marshes, already experiencing elevated retreat because of intense human activities, induced a geomorphic feedback that amplified this erosion and thereby set limits to the recovery of otherwise resilient vegetation. It thus warns of the enhanced vulnerability of already degraded marshes to heavy oil coverage and provides a clear example of how multiple human-induced stressors can interact to hasten ecosystem decline.
Project description:The Deepwater Horizon oil spill affected hundreds of kilometers of coastal wetland shorelines, including salt marshes with persistent heavy oiling that required intensive shoreline "cleanup" treatment. Oiled marsh treatment involves a delicate balance among: removing oil, speeding the degradation of remaining oil, protecting wildlife, fostering habitat recovery, and not causing further ecological damage with treatment. To examine the effectiveness and ecological effects of treatment during the emergency response, oiling characteristics and ecological parameters were compared over two years among heavily oiled test plots subject to: manual treatment, mechanical treatment, natural recovery (no treatment, oiled control), as well as adjacent reference conditions. An additional experiment compared areas with and without vegetation planting following treatment. Negative effects of persistent heavy oiling on marsh vegetation, intertidal invertebrates, and shoreline erosion were observed. In areas without treatment, oiling conditions and negative effects for most marsh parameters did not considerably improve over two years. Both manual and mechanical treatment were effective at improving oiling conditions and vegetation characteristics, beginning the recovery process, though recovery was not complete by two years. Mechanical treatment had additional negative effects of mixing oil into the marsh soils and further accelerating erosion. Manual treatment appeared to strike the right balance between improving oiling and habitat conditions while not causing additional detrimental effects. However, even with these improvements, marsh periwinkle snails showed minimal signs of recovery through two years, suggesting that some ecosystem components may lag vegetation recovery. Planting following treatment quickened vegetation recovery and reduced shoreline erosion. Faced with comparable marsh oiling in the future, we would recommend manual treatment followed by planting. We caution against the use of intensive treatment methods with lesser marsh oiling. Oiled controls (no treatment "set-asides") are essential for judging marsh treatment effectiveness and ecological effects; we recommend their use when applying intensive treatment methods.
Project description:The oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was documented by shoreline assessment teams as stranding on 1,773 km of shoreline. Beaches comprised 50.8%, marshes 44.9%, and other shoreline types 4.3% of the oiled shoreline. Shoreline cleanup activities were authorized on 660 km, or 73.3% of oiled beaches and up to 71 km, or 8.9% of oiled marshes and associated habitats. One year after the spill began, oil remained on 847 km; two years later, oil remained on 687 km, though at much lesser degrees of oiling. For example, shorelines characterized as heavily oiled went from a maximum of 360 km, to 22.4 km one year later, and to 6.4 km two years later. Shoreline cleanup has been conducted to meet habitat-specific cleanup endpoints and will continue until all oiled shoreline segments meet endpoints. The entire shoreline cleanup program has been managed under the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT) Program, which is a systematic, objective, and inclusive process to collect data on shoreline oiling conditions and support decision making on appropriate cleanup methods and endpoints. It was a particularly valuable and effective process during such a complex spill.
Project description:Ecosystem boundary retreat due to human-induced pressure is a generally observed phenomenon. However, studies that document thresholds beyond which internal resistance mechanisms are overwhelmed are uncommon. Following the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, field studies from a few sites suggested that oiling of salt marshes could lead to a biogeomorphic feedback where plant death resulted in increased marsh erosion. We tested for spatial generality of and thresholds in this effect across 103 salt marsh sites spanning ~430?kilometers of shoreline in coastal Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, using data collected as part of the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA). Our analyses revealed a threshold for oil impacts on marsh edge erosion, with higher erosion rates occurring for ~1-2 years after the spill at sites with the highest amounts of plant stem oiling (90-100%). These results provide compelling evidence showing large-scale ecosystem loss following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More broadly, these findings provide rare empirical evidence identifying a geomorphologic threshold in the resistance of an ecosystem to increasing intensity of human-induced disturbance.
Project description:The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 had unprecedented impact on the Gulf of Mexico. We established the greenhead horse fly (Tabanus nigrovittatus Macquart) as a bioindicator of marsh health. This species is bound to coastal marshes, since its larvae develop as top invertebrate predators in the marsh soil. Immediately after the oil spill (2010-2011), populations of this horse fly declined in oiled areas of Louisiana marshes with significant impacts on genetic structure. In this follow-up study five years after the catastrophic event (2015-2016), we now report signs of recovery of populations in formerly oiled areas. Fly numbers increased compared to previous counts. Previously detected genetic bottlenecks in oiled populations have disappeared. Migration into oiled areas began to replenish formerly depleted horse fly populations in impacted regions with populations from non-oiled areas as an important source of migrants. Parameters of family structure that had been impacted by the oil spill (number of breeding parents, effective population size, number of family clusters) rebounded to levels similar to or exceeding those in non-oiled control areas.
Project description:Salt marshes in northern Barataria Bay, Louisiana, USA were oiled, sometimes heavily, in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Previous studies indicate that fiddler crabs (in the genus Uca) and the salt marsh periwinkle (Littoraria irrorata) were negatively impacted in the short term by the spill. Here, we detail longer-term effects and recovery from moderate and heavy oiling over a 3-year span, beginning 30 months after the spill. Although neither fiddler crab burrow density nor diameter differed between oiled and reference sites when combined across all sampling events, these traits differed among some individual sampling periods consistent with a pattern of lingering oiling impacts. Periwinkle density, however, increased in all oiling categories and shell-length groups during our sampling period, and periwinkle densities were consistently highest at moderately oiled sites where Spartina alterniflora aboveground biomass was highest. Periwinkle shell length linearly increased from a mean of 16.5 to 19.2 mm over the study period at reference sites. In contrast, shell lengths at moderately oiled and heavily oiled sites increased through month 48 after the spill, but then decreased. This decrease was associated with a decline in the relative abundance of large adults (shell length 21-26 mm) at oiled sites which was likely caused by chronic hydrocarbon toxicity or oil-induced effects on habitat quality or food resources. Overall, the recovery of S. alterniflora facilitated the recovery of fiddler crabs and periwinkles. However, our long-term record not only indicates that variation in periwinkle mean shell length and length-frequency distributions are sensitive indicators of the health and recovery of the marsh, but agrees with synoptic studies of vegetation and infaunal communities that full recovery of heavily oiled sites will take longer than 66 months.
Project description:The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill damaged thousands of km2 of intertidal marsh along shorelines that had been experiencing elevated rates of erosion for decades. Yet, the contribution of marsh oiling to landscape-scale degradation and subsequent land loss has been difficult to quantify. Here, we applied advanced remote sensing techniques to map changes in marsh land cover and open water before and after oiling. We segmented the marsh shorelines into non-oiled and oiled reaches and calculated the land loss rates for each 10% increase in oil cover (e.g. 0% to >70%), to determine if land loss rates for each reach oiling category were significantly different before and after oiling. Finally, we calculated background land-loss rates to separate natural and oil-related erosion and land loss. Oiling caused significant increases in land losses, particularly along reaches of heavy oiling (>20% oil cover). For reaches with ?20% oiling, land loss rates increased abruptly during the 2010-2013 period, and the loss rates during this period are significantly different from both the pre-oiling (p < 0.0001) and 2013-2016 post-oiling periods (p < 0.0001). The pre-oiling and 2013-2016 post-oiling periods exhibit no significant differences in land loss rates across oiled and non-oiled reaches (p = 0.557). We conclude that oiling increased land loss by more than 50%, but that land loss rates returned to background levels within 3-6 years after oiling, suggesting that oiling results in a large but temporary increase in land loss rates along the shoreline.
Project description:The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the biggest oil spill in US history. To assess the impact of the oil spill on the saltmarsh plant community, we examined Advanced Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) data flown over Barataria Bay, Louisiana in September 2010 and August 2011. Oil contamination was mapped using oil absorption features in pixel spectra and used to examine impact of oil along the oiled shorelines. Results showed that vegetation stress was restricted to the tidal zone extending 14 m inland from the shoreline in September 2010. Four indexes of plant stress and three indexes of canopy water content all consistently showed that stress was highest in pixels next to the shoreline and decreased with increasing distance from the shoreline. Index values along the oiled shoreline were significantly lower than those along the oil-free shoreline. Regression of index values with respect to distance from oil showed that in 2011, index values were no longer correlated with proximity to oil suggesting that the marsh was on its way to recovery. Change detection between the two dates showed that areas denuded of vegetation after the oil impact experienced varying degrees of re-vegetation in the following year. This recovery was poorest in the first three pixels adjacent to the shoreline. This study illustrates the usefulness of high spatial resolution airborne imaging spectroscopy to map actual locations where oil from the spill reached the shore and then to assess its impacts on the plant community. We demonstrate that post-oiling trends in terms of plant health and mortality could be detected and monitored, including recovery of these saltmarsh meadows one year after the oil spill.
Project description:Coastal salt marshes along the northern Gulf of Mexico shoreline received varied types and amounts of weathered oil residues after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At the time, predicting how marsh bacterial communities would respond and/or recover to oiling and other environmental stressors was difficult because baseline information on community composition and dynamics was generally unavailable. Here, we evaluated marsh vegetation, physicochemistry, flooding frequency, hydrocarbon chemistry, and subtidal sediment bacterial communities from 16S rRNA gene surveys at 11 sites in southern Louisiana before the oil spill and resampled the same marshes three to four times over 38 months after the spill. Calculated hydrocarbon biomarker indices indicated that oil replaced native natural organic matter (NOM) originating from Spartina alterniflora and marine phytoplankton in the marshes between May 2010 and September 2010. At all the studied marshes, the major class- and order-level shifts among the phyla Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, and Actinobacteria occurred within these first 4 months, but another community shift occurred at the time of peak oiling in 2011. Two years later, hydrocarbon levels decreased and bacterial communities became more diverse, being dominated by Alphaproteobacteria (Rhizobiales), Chloroflexi (Dehalococcoidia), and Planctomycetes Compositional changes through time could be explained by NOM source differences, perhaps due to vegetation changes, as well as marsh flooding and salinity excursions linked to freshwater diversions. These findings indicate that persistent hydrocarbon exposure alone did not explain long-term community shifts.IMPORTANCE Significant deterioration of coastal salt marshes in Louisiana has been linked to natural and anthropogenic stressors that can adversely affect how ecosystems function. Although microorganisms carry out and regulate most biogeochemical reactions, the diversity of bacterial communities in coastal marshes is poorly known, with limited investigation of potential changes in bacterial communities in response to various environmental stressors. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided an unprecedented opportunity to study the long-term effects of an oil spill on microbial systems in marshes. Compared to previous studies, the significance of our research stems from (i) a broader geographic range of studied marshes, (ii) an extended time frame of data collection that includes prespill conditions, (iii) a more accurate procedure using biomarker indices to understand oiling, and (iv) an examination of other potential stressors linked to in situ environmental changes, aside from oil exposure.
Project description:Symbiotic associations can be disrupted by disturbance or by changing environmental conditions. Endophytes are fungal and bacterial symbionts of plants that can affect performance. As in more widely known symbioses, acute or chronic stressor exposure might trigger disassociation of endophytes from host plants. We tested this hypothesis by examining the effects of oil exposure following the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill on endophyte diversity and abundance in Spartina alterniflora - the foundational plant in northern Gulf coast salt marshes affected by the spill. We compared bacterial and fungal endophytes isolated from plants in reference areas to isolates from plants collected in areas with residual oil that has persisted for more than three years after the DWH spill. DNA sequence-based estimates showed that oil exposure shifted endophyte diversity and community structure. Plants from oiled areas exhibited near total loss of leaf fungal endophytes. Root fungal endophytes exhibited a more modest decline and little change was observed in endophytic bacterial diversity or abundance, though a shift towards hydrocarbon metabolizers was found in plants from oiled sites. These results show that plant-endophyte symbioses can be disrupted by stressor exposure, and indicate that symbiont community disassembly in marsh plants is an enduring outcome of the DWH spill.
Project description:The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had significant effects on microbial communities in the Gulf, but impacts on nitrifying communities in adjacent salt marshes have not been investigated. We studied persistent effects of oil on ammonia-oxidizing archaeal (AOA) and bacterial (AOB) communities and their relationship to nitrification rates and soil properties in Louisiana marshes impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Soils were collected at oiled and unoiled sites from Louisiana coastal marshes in July 2012, 2 years after the spill, and analyzed for community differences based on ammonia monooxygenase genes (amoA). Terminal Restriction Fragment Polymorphism and DNA sequence analyses revealed significantly different AOA and AOB communities between the three regions, but few differences were found between oiled and unoiled sites. Community composition of nitrifiers was best explained by differences in soil moisture and nitrogen content. Despite the lack of significant oil effects on overall community composition, we identified differences in correlations of individual populations with potential nitrification rates between oiled and unoiled sites that help explain previously published correlation patterns. Our results suggest that exposure to oil, even 2 years post-spill, led to subtle changes in population dynamics. How, or if, these changes may impact ecosystem function in the marshes, however, remains uncertain.