Sea level rise (SLR) and land-use change are working together to change coastal communities around the world. Along Florida's coast, SLR and large-scale drying are increasing groundwater salinity, resulting in halophytic (salt-tolerant) species colonizing glycophytic (salt-intolerant) communities. We hypothesized that halophytes can contribute to increased soil salinity as they move into glycophyte communities, making soils more saline than SLR or drying alone. We tested our hypothesis with a replacement-series greenhouse experiment with halophyte/glycophyte ratios of 0:4, 1:3, 2:2, 3:1, 4:0, mimicking halophyte movement into glycophyte communities. We subjected replicates to 0, 26, and 38‰ salinity for one, one, and three months, respectively, taking soil salinity and stomatal conductance measurements at the end of each treatment period. Our results showed that soil salinity increased as halophyte/glycophyte ratio increased. Either osmotic or ionic stress caused decreases in glycophyte biomass, resulting in less per-plant transpiration as compared to halophytes. At 38‰ groundwater, soil salinity increased as halophyte density increased, making conditions more conducive to further halophyte establishment. This study suggests that coastal plant community turnover may occur faster than would be predicted from SLR and anthropogenic disturbance alone.
Keywords: Climate change; Coastal vegetation shifts; Competition; Ecosystem engineer; Soil salinity.