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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2017

Relationships between aquatic vegetation and water turbidity: A field survey across seasons and spatial scales

Austin, Asa N.; Hansen, Joakim P.; Donadi, Serena; Eklof, Johan S.


Field surveys often show that high water turbidity limits cover of aquatic vegetation, while many small-scale experiments show that vegetation can reduce turbidity by decreasing water flow, stabilizing sediments, and competing with phytoplankton for nutrients. Here we bridged these two views by exploring the direction and strength of causal relationships between aquatic vegetation and turbidity across seasons (spring and late summer) and spatial scales (local and regional), using causal modeling based on data from a field survey along the central Swedish Baltic Sea coast. The two best-fitting regional-scale models both suggested that in spring, high cover of vegetation reduces water turbidity. In summer, the relationships differed between the two models; in the first model high vegetation cover reduced turbidity; while in the second model reduction of summer turbidity by high vegetation cover in spring had a positive effect on summer vegetation which suggests a positive feedback of vegetation on itself. Nitrogen load had a positive effect on turbidity in both seasons, which was comparable in strength to the effect of vegetation on turbidity. To assess whether the effect of vegetation was primarily caused by sediment stabilization or a reduction of phytoplankton, we also tested models where turbidity was replaced by phytoplankton fluorescence or sediment-driven turbidity. The best-fitting regional-scale models suggested that high sediment-driven turbidity in spring reduces vegetation cover in summer, which in turn has a negative effect on sediment-driven turbidity in summer, indicating a potential positive feedback of sediment-driven turbidity on itself. Using data at the local scale, few relationships were significant, likely due to the influence of unmeasured variables and/or spatial heterogeneity. In summary, causal modeling based on data from a large-scale field survey suggested that aquatic vegetation can reduce turbidity at regional scales, and that high vegetation cover vs. high sediment-driven turbidity may represent two self-enhancing, alternative states of shallow bay ecosystems.

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2017, Volume: 12, number: 8, article number: e0181419

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