In situ burning restores the ecological function and structure of an oil-impacted coastal marsh

Joseph Baustian, Irving Mendelssohn, Qianxin Lin, John Rapp
Environmental Management 2010, 46 (5): 781-9
As the use of in situ burning for oil spill remediation in coastal wetlands accelerates, the capacity of this procedure to restore the ecological structure and function of oil-impacted wetlands becomes increasingly important. Thus, our research focused on evaluating the functional and structural recovery of a coastal marsh in South Louisiana to an in situ burn following a Hurricane Katrina-induced oil spill. Permanent sampling plots were set up to monitor marsh recovery in the oiled and burned areas as well as non-oiled and non-burned (reference) marshes. Plots were monitored for species composition, stem density, above- and belowground productivity, marsh resiliency, soil chemistry, soil residual oil, and organic matter decomposition. The burn removed the majority of the oil from the marsh, and structurally the marsh recovered rapidly. Plant biomass and species composition returned to control levels within 9 months; however, species richness remained somewhat lower in the oiled and burned areas compared to the reference areas. Recovery of ecological function was also rapid following the in situ burn. Aboveground and belowground plant productivity recovered within one growing season, and although decomposition rates were initially higher in the oiled areas, over time they became equivalent to those in reference sites. Also, marsh resiliency, i.e., the rate of recovery from our applied disturbances, was not affected by the in situ burn. We conclude that in situ burning is an effective way to remove oil and allow ecosystem recovery in coastal marshes.

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