Hydrologic Controls on Ecosystem Structure and Function in the Great Dismal Swamp

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Virginia Tech

Forested peatlands of the Great Dismal Swamp (GDS) have been greatly altered since colonial times, motivating recent restoration efforts. Community structure and function were hydrologically altered by 19th and 20th century ditches installed to lower water levels and enable early timber harvesting. Contemporary forest communities are comprised of maturing remnants from selective timber harvesting that ended in the early 1970s. Red maple (Acer rubrum) has become the dominant species across GDS, encroaching on or replacing the historical mosaic of cypress (Taxodium spp.)/tupelo (Nyssa spp.), Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), and pocosin (Pinus spp.). Moreover, peat soil has been exposed to more unsaturated conditions resulting in carbon loss through decomposition and increased peat fire frequency and severity. Installation of ditch control structures aim to control drainage and re-establish historical hydrology, vegetation communities, peat accretion rates, and fire regime. To help inform restoration and management, we conducted two complimentary studies to test hypotheses regarding hydrologic influences on vegetation, peat depths, and peat fire vulnerability. First, we found thicker peat, lower maple importance, and higher species richness at wetter sites (e.g., higher mean water levels). In our second study, we evaluated the integrated effects of peat properties and water level dynamics on peat fire vulnerability. We found decreased burn vulnerability with increased wetness, suggesting that the driest sites were always at risk to burn, whereas the wettest sites never approached fire risk conditions. Together our findings demonstrate strong hydrologic controls on GDS ecosystem structure and function, thereby informing water level management for restoration goals.

Dismal Swamp, peat, smoldering fire, maple, wetland vegetation, hydrologic restoration, hydrology