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Ecosystem boundary retreat due to human-induced pressure is a generally observed phenomenon. However, studies that document thresholds beyond which internal resistance mechanisms are overwhelmed are uncommon. Following the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, field studies from a few sites suggested that oiling of salt marshes could lead to a biogeomorphic feedback where plant death resulted in increased marsh erosion. We tested for spatial generality of and thresholds in this effect across 103 salt marsh sites spanning ~430 kilometers of shoreline in coastal Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, using data collected as part of the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA). Our analyses revealed a threshold for oil impacts on marsh edge erosion, with higher erosion rates occurring for ~1–2 years after the spill at sites with the highest amounts of plant stem oiling (90–100%). These results provide compelling evidence showing large-scale ecosystem loss following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More broadly, these findings provide rare empirical evidence identifying a geomorphologic threshold in the resistance of an ecosystem to increasing intensity of human-induced disturbance.
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Stillman, Brian R.; Dixon, Philip M.; Wobus, Cameron; He, Qiang; Daleo, Pedro; Hughes, Bent B.; Rissing, Matthew; Willis, Jonathan M.; and Hester, Mark W., "Thresholds in marsh resilience to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill" (2016). Statistics Publications. 156.