Moss Point, MS – A groundbreaking scientific study currently underway is testing prescribed fire as a management technique for helping endangered coastal habitats adapt to sea level rise over time. Coastal wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate along the Gulf of Mexico coast for a variety of reasons, including a rate of relative sea level rise higher than the global average. With support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation (GMF), scientists are on a mission to discover if reintroducing fire to coastal ecosystems will enhance biodiversity and assist marshes in migrating inland as shorelines recede.
The brainchild of Dr. Loretta Battaglia, Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Biology at Southern Illinois University, and Dr. Julia A. Cherry, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences & New College at the University of Alabama, the study is being conducted at Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (GBNERR), one of the most biologically productive estuarine ecosystems in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The prescribed fire, which safely reduces excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees and encourages new growth of native vegetation, was implemented in May 2015, spanning salt marsh to upland pine forest.
“So much of the landscape in the United States, and other parts of the world, is absolutely dependent on fire to remain healthy,” said George Ramseur, Office Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. “There are many plant communities, and whole ecosystems, that literally cannot exist unless they are burned periodically.”
Data collected before the fire and over the two years following it will be analyzed to determine if prescribed fire promotes lateral migration of marshes across the landscape and ultimately increases the variety of species in this ecosystem. The Reserve’s habitats support rare and endangered plant and animal species, and important marine fisheries. With more than 18,000 acres of diverse types of vegetation and a dedicated staff of science and education professionals, the GBNERR is a perfect place for the study.
The Gulf of Mexico Foundation acquired $245,672 in funding through a cooperative agreement from the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, which encourages sharing of science through education and outreach. As part of the agreement, the GBNERR will produce educational and media events throughout the course of the project, bringing teachers and students to the site and creating a curriculum to be made publicly available. In addition, the GMF will produce distance learning sessions for K-12 students and an online course for coastal managers and restoration practitioners.
In collaboration with the research and monitoring staff of GBNERR, Cherry and Battaglia designed the field study and will actively participate in the onsite activities, oversee graduate and undergraduate student participants from their universities, conduct data analyses, present findings at conferences, and publish results in peer-reviewed journals.
The project, which is officially titled “Will Reintroduction of Fire along Coastal Gradients Promote Lateral Migration of Marsh and Enhance Biodiversity” is expected to conclude in 2017, but the findings from this study should lead to a healthy and prosperous ecosystem for generations to come.