Prediction of Plant Vulnerability to Salinity Increase in a Coastal Ecosystem by Stable Isotope Composition (δ18O) of Plant Stem Water: A Model Study

Lu Zhai, Jiang Jiang, Donald DeAngelis, Leonel da Silveira Lobo Sternberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Sea level rise and the subsequent intrusion of saline seawater can result in an increase in soil salinity, and potentially cause coastal salinity-intolerant vegetation (for example, hardwood hammocks or pines) to be replaced by salinity-tolerant vegetation (for example, mangroves or salt marshes). Although the vegetation shifts can be easily monitored by satellite imagery, it is hard to predict a particular area or even a particular tree that is vulnerable to such a shift. To find an appropriate indicator for the potential vegetation shift, we incorporated stable isotope 18O abundance as a tracer in various hydrologic components (for example, vadose zone, water table) in a previously published model describing ecosystem shifts between hammock and mangrove communities in southern Florida. Our simulations showed that (1) there was a linear relationship between salinity and the δ18O value in the water table, whereas this relationship was curvilinear in the vadose zone; (2) hammock trees with higher probability of being replaced by mangroves had higher δ18O values of plant stem water, and this difference could be detected 2 years before the trees reached a tipping point, beyond which future replacement became certain; and (3) individuals that were eventually replaced by mangroves from the hammock tree population with a 50% replacement probability had higher stem water δ18O values 3 years before their replacement became certain compared to those from the same population which were not replaced. Overall, these simulation results suggest that it is promising to track the yearly δ18O values of plant stem water in hammock forests to predict impending salinity stress and mortality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)32-49
Number of pages18
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • hammock
  • mangrove
  • salinity
  • sea level rise
  • vadose zone
  • vegetation shift
  • δO

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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