Coastal ecosystems throughout the world are increasingly vulnerable to degradation as a result of accelerating sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion, more frequent and powerful extreme weather events, and anthropogenic impacts. Hardwood swamp forests in the Big Bend region of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast (USA) are largely devoid of the latter, but have degraded rapidly since the turn of the 21st Century. Photographs of the forest, collected on the ground since 2009, were used to guide an analysis of a 60 km2
study area using satellite images. The images confirm that the coastal forest area declined 0.60% from 1982 to 2003, but degraded rapidly, by 7.44%, from 2010 to 2017. The forest declined most rapidly along waterways and at the coastal marsh–forest boundary. Additional time series of aerial-photographs corroborated the onset of degradation in 2010. Degradation continued through 2017 with no apparent recovery. Previous research from the area has concluded that increased tidal flooding and saltwater intrusion, of the coastal plain, represent a chronic stress driving coastal forest decline in this region, but these drivers do not explain the abrupt acceleration in forest die-off. Local tide gage data indicate that sea-level rise is 2 mm yr−1
and accelerating, while meteorological data reveal at least two short-term cold snap events, with extreme temperatures exceeding the reported temperature threshold of local vegetation (−10 °C) between January 2010 and January 2011, followed by more extremes in 2016. The Big Bend hardwood forest experienced acute cold snap stress during the 2010–2017 period, of a magnitude not experienced in the previous 20 years, that compounded the chronic stress associated with sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion. This and other coastal forests can be expected to suffer further widespread and lasting degradation as these stresses are likely to be sustained.
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