The Unabated Atmospheric Carbon Losses in a Drowning Wetland Forest of North Carolina: A Point of No Return?
Coastal wetlands provide the unique biogeochemical functions of storing a large fraction of the terrestrial carbon (C) pool and being among the most productive ecosystems in the world. However, coastal wetlands face numerous natural and anthropogenic disturbances that threaten their ecological integrity and C storage potential. To monitor the C balance of a coastal forested wetland, we established an eddy covariance flux tower in a natural undrained bottomland hardwood forest in eastern North Carolina, USA. We examined the long-term trends (2009–2019) in gross primary productivity (GPP), ecosystem respiration (RE), and the net ecosystem C exchange (NEE) seasonally and inter-annually. We analyzed the response of C fluxes and balance to climatic and hydrologic forcings and examined the possible effects of rising sea levels on the inland groundwater dynamics. Our results show that in 2009, a higher annual GPP (1922 g C m−2 yr−1 ) was observed than annual RE (1554 g C m−2 yr−1 ), resulting in a net C sink (NEE = −368 g C m−2 yr−1 ). However, the annual C balance switched to a net C source in 2010 and onwards, varying from 87 g C m−2 yr−1 to 759 g C m−2 yr−1 . The multiple effects of air temperature (Tair), net radiation (Rn), groundwater table (GWT) depth, and precipitation (p) explained 66%, 71%, and 29% of the variation in GPP, RE, and NEE, respectively (p< 0.0001). The lowering of GWT (−0.01 cm to −14.26 cm) enhanced GPP and RE by 35% and 28%, respectively. We also observed a significant positive correlation between mean sea level and GWT (R 2 = 0.11), but not between GWT and p (R 2 = 0.02). Cumulative fluxes from 2009 to 2019 showed continuing C losses owing to a higher rate of increase of RE than GPP. This study contributes to carbon balance accounting to improve ecosystem models, relating C dynamics to temporal trends in under-represented coastal forested wetlands.