The unprecedented storm surge from Hurricane Sandy was enough to shift coastal shorelines along New York and New Jersey. One barrier island, Fire Island – off the southern coast of Long Island, N.Y., for example, traveled as much as 85 feet inland when the island’s dune eroded as a result of the storm.
Storm surges associated with sea level rise are important predicted consequences of global climate change and have the potential for severe effects on the vegetation of low-lying coastal areas. Ocean water intrusion through storm surges can affect large areas in a short period of time, as we have seen recently with Hurricane Sandy.
The question of how these storm surges affect coastal areas can be addressed mathematically and is the focus of award-winning research by Dr. Jiang Jiang, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS).
Predicting the likelihood of the vegetation regime shifts requires detailed modeling of coupled ecological-hydroligic processes. Jiang’s recent work was awarded first prize in the MCED Award for Innovative Contributions to Ecological Modelling. MCED, which stands for Modelling Complex Ecological Dynamics, is a textbook presenting an overview in approaches and applications in ecological modeling. The textbook editors organize the annual award as a part of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GfÖ) awards. The intention of the MCED award, which is given to young modelers who have finished their degree within the last three years, is to foster the development and application of modern ecological modeling methods that can help to expand the understanding of complex ecological dynamics.
For Jiang’s winning project, “Modelling the emergence of self-stabilising sharp boundaries in ecotones of coastal marshland communities,” Jiang developed a model that coupled vegetation dynamics with hydrology and salinity to study factors that might affect vegetation in low-lying coastal areas.
Modeling techniques used in the study are among the first to couple vegetation dynamics with hydrology and salinity to study the factors affecting coastal vegetation in areas where vegetation changes abruptly, called ecotones. In disentangling the mechanisms that maintain the stability of ecotones of coastal vegetation, the study reveals that the salinity, caused by tidal flux, is the key factor separating vegetation communities, while a self-reinforcing feedback is the main factor for creating the sharpness of coastal boundaries.
The finding is indeed new for coastal wetland ecology and has implications for future research. Also, the model developed in the study is a new and interesting tool that will likely attract the attention of wetland ecologists who could use it to make better projections of possible changes in coastal vegetation due to storm surges.
Work related to Jiang’s award-winning entry has appeared in two published papers –
Jiang J, DeAngelis DL, Smith TJ, Teh SY, Koh HL. 2012. Spatial pattern formation of coastal vegetation in response to hydrodynamics of soil pore water salinity: A model study. Landscape Ecology 27:109-119 [online].
Jiang J, Gao D, DeAngelis DL. 2012. Towards a theory of ecotone resilience: Coastal vegetation on a salinity gradient. Theoretical Population Biology 82:29-37 [online].