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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Submitted as: research article 28 Oct 2019

Submitted as: research article | 28 Oct 2019

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal OS.

Spatiotemporal variability of light attenuation and net ecosystem metabolism in a back-barrier estuary

Neil K. Ganju1, Jeremy M. Testa2, Steven E. Suttles1, and Alfredo L. Aretxabaleta1 Neil K. Ganju et al.
  • 1U.S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, Woods Hole, MA
  • 2Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Solomons, MD

Abstract. Quantifying system-wide biogeochemical dynamics and ecosystem metabolism in estuaries is often attempted using a long-term continuous record at a single site, or short-term records at multiple sites due to sampling limitations that preclude long-term monitoring at multiple sites. However, differences in the dominant primary producer at a given location (e.g., phytoplankton versus submerged aquatic vegetation; SAV) control diel variations in dissolved oxygen and associated ecosystem metabolism, and may confound metabolism estimates that do not account for this variability. We hypothesize that even in shallow, well-mixed estuaries there are strong spatiotemporal gradients in ecosystem metabolism due to the influence of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), and ensuing feedbacks to sediment resuspension, light attenuation, and primary production. We tested this hypothesis by measuring hydrodynamic properties, biogeochemical variables (fluorescent dissolved organic matter (fDOM), turbidity, chlorophyll-a fluorescence, dissolved oxygen), and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) over one year at 15 min intervals at paired channel (unvegetated) and shoal (vegetated) sites in Chincoteague Bay, Maryland/Virginia, USA, a shallow back-barrier estuary. Light attenuation (KdPAR) at all sites was dominated by turbidity from suspended sediment, with lower contributions from fDOM and chlorophyll-a. However, there was significant seasonal variability in the resuspension-shear stress relationship on the vegetated shoals, but not in adjacent unvegetated channels. This indicated that KdPAR on the shoals was mediated by SAV presence in the summer, which reduced resuspension and therefore KdPAR. We also found that gross primary production (Pg) and KdPAR were significantly negatively correlated on the shoals and uncorrelated in the channels, indicating that Pg over the vegetated shoals is controlled by a feedback loop between SAV presence, sediment resuspension, and light availability. Metabolic estimates indicated substantial differences in net ecosystem metabolism between vegetated and unvegetated sites, with the former tending towards net autotrophy in the summer. Ongoing trends of SAV loss in this and other back-barrier estuaries suggests that these systems may also shift towards net heterotrophy, reducing their effectiveness as long-term carbon sinks. With regard to temporal variability, we found that varying sampling frequency between 15 min and 1 d resulted in comparable mean values of biogeochemical variables, but extreme values were missed by daily sampling. In fact, daily re-sampling minimized the variability between sites and falsely suggested spatial homogeneity in biogeochemistry, emphasizing the need for high-frequency sampling. This study confirms that properly quantifying ecosystem metabolism and associated biogeochemical variability requires characterization of the diverse estuarine environments, even in well-mixed systems, and demonstrates the deficiencies introduced by infrequent sampling on the interpretation of spatial gradients.

Neil K. Ganju et al.

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Neil K. Ganju et al.

Data sets

Oceanographic and Water Quality Measurements in Chincoteague Bay, Maryland/Virginia, 2014 - 2015 S. E. Suttles, N. K. Ganju, S. M. Brosnahan, E. T. Montgomery, P. J. Dickhudt, J. Borden, and M. A. Martini

Neil K. Ganju et al.


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Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Seagrass, as plants, need light for photosynthesis and production.This study measured the changes in productivity and light in a back-barrier estuary, and connected those changes with the type of seabed within the estuary. We found that the locations with seagrass on the seabed had more light getting through the water and higher productivity, because of the way seagrass keeps sediment on the seabed during wave events. When sediment stays on the bed, it cannot reduce the light in the water.
Seagrass, as plants, need light for photosynthesis and production.This study measured the...