A study by Cardiff University’s Water Research Institute and the University of Vermont has suggested that the ecological impact of climate change on rivers could be minimised by improving the quality of water. The study was published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’.
“Globally, freshwaters are amongst our most threatened habitats, showing some of the largest species declines and fastest rates of extinction. Many freshwater species are very sensitive to temperature, with as little as a 0.5 degC increase having large effects,” said Dr Ian Vaughan, the lead author, Cardiff University’s Water Research. “Despite rising temperatures, many rivers in England and Wales have continued to recover from historical pollution problems over recent decades, suggesting that ongoing water quality improvements offset temperature rises,” Vaughan explained.
“For the first time, we have estimated the size of this water quality ‘credit’, which appears to have paid the climatic ‘debt’ accumulated during this period. Although pollution control is not a panacea for the effects of climate change on rivers, our study suggests it is a valuable tool in mitigating effects of climate change in addition to its wider environmental benefits,” Vaughan added. Warm water can affect freshwater organisms in similar ways to many pollutants: both reduce the availability of oxygen in the water.
As oxygen levels decline, sensitive species may disappear, including invertebrates such as mayflies, and fish such as salmon and trout. On a more positive note, efforts to improve water quality, such as improved wastewater treatment and tighter regulation could potentially counteract some of the effects of climate warming.
The team looked at how invertebrate communities had changed at >3000 locations across England and Wales, over a 20-year span starting in 1991. During this period, average water temperatures increased by 0.6 degC, but the biological effects of warming appear to have been offset by simultaneous improvements in water quality that were equivalent to more than 0.8degC of cooling.