UTRGV professor’s co-research with USGS on climate change and coastal wetlands published in leading journal

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Professor Christopher Gabler, with graduate students and volunteers show the start of a new project near the UTRGV Casa Bella student housing. The project will allow a number of experiments, from farming to wetlands.
UTRGV Photo by David Pike

Texas Border Business

By Jennifer L. Berghom 

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – JAN. 25, 2017 – Dr. Christopher A. Gabler, an assistant professor in the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences, has authored a paper with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that says climate change in the coming century will drive transformative changes in the coastal wetlands of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

“We expect that there will be major changes in both the wildlife and the physical structure of our coastal wetlands across the Gulf Coast – and that this is going to happen in the lifetimes of our children,” Gabler said.

“It’s already happening. We’ve already seen some of it,” he said. “We’re going to be seeing the transition in our lifetimes. I take my son, who’s 4, and my daughter, who’s 2, fishing around here and in Galveston, and it’s going to be a different world for them when they’re taking their children fishing.”

The paper, “Macroclimatic change expected to transform coastal wetland ecosystems this century,” was published Jan. 23 online on Nature Climate Change, the leading international academic journal that publishes research on climate change issues. 

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Fellow authors of the study are USGS ecologists and geographers, including Dr. Michael Osland, Dr. James Grace, Dr. Camille Stagg, Richard Day, Stephen Hartley, Nicholas Enwright, and Andrew From. Two undergraduate students from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Meagan McCoy and Jennie McLeod, also contributed to the study.

The project was funded by the Department of the Interior South Central Climate Science Center and by the USGS’s Ecosystems Mission Area, and its Climate & Land Use Change Program.

This is one of the first studies to address how changes in temperature and rainfall affect coastal wetlands; to date, nearly all climate change research on coastal wetlands has focused solely on rising sea levels.

This also is the first and only study to model climate-induced changes in individual coastal wetland plant functional groups, and to make specific predictions for wetlands in particular regions of the Gulf Coast.

“This study is important because it uses an impressive amount of on-the-ground data to characterize the influence of climate on different types of Gulf wetlands – mangrove forests, salt marshes and salt flats,” said co-author Osland, a research ecologist with the USGS.

Gabler, who was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston at the time of the research, and fellow researchers from the USGS spent more than a year and a half collecting field data on how climate and local environmental factors influence coastal wetlands across the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The team spent the latter part of 2013 and all of 2014 conducting the research.

The study relied on field studies at 10 Gulf estuaries in five states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Fieldwork took place in a variety of coastal wetland types, including mangroves, marshes and salt flats, according to a news release from the USGS.

The model included the current climatic conditions, which were based on climate observations from the northern Gulf of Mexico for the years 1981 to 2010. Researchers then evaluated how coastal wetlands might be affected by several potential future climates, including temperature increases of 3.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 4 degrees Celsius) by 2100 and a 10 percent increase or decrease in rainfall from current levels.

They determined that the coastal wetlands are going to change, drastically and quickly.

Expected changes include grassy marshes becoming forests dominated by mangrove trees, algae mats replacing plants, and changes in the types and amount of wildlife that inhabit these areas. The changes also will affect how wetlands will serve the communities that surround them, Gabler said.

“Coastal wetlands are an invaluable resource,” he said. “They protect surrounding communities from storms and abate wave action and storm surge. They protect communities from coastal erosion so they don’t lose their physical land. They support fisheries and wildlife, purify water, and help prevent dead zones from forming in the Gulf,” he said.

The predicted changes are likely to change how the wetlands operate, Gabler added.

Yet, it is not all bad news, he said.

“There are going to be winners and losers. Some things are going to be better, some are going to be worse,” he said. “The systems will do things differently … ‘Different’ is a challenge, and things will be difficult while we adjust, but it’s not all going to be detrimental. There will be positives and negatives. 

“But I also don’t want to give the false impression that everything is OK,” he said. “This change is going to be a shock; this is going to affect coastal industries.”