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Global warming is disrupting the seasonal flow of rivers

Our rivers are changing, and not for the better. A new study from University of Leeds reveals that climate change is disrupting the natural seasonal flow of rivers in crucial regions like northern North America, Europe, and Russia. This has worrying implications for both water security and the health of freshwater ecosystems.

Importance of seasonal river flow

Normally, rivers have predictable highs and lows in water levels throughout the year. The rise and fall in rivers throughout the year, known as seasonal flow variations, are essential for nature and humans. Many creatures rely on these seasonal changes for crucial events in their lives. 

Additionally, seasonal floods act as natural fertilizers, spreading nutrients across the land and enriching the soil, which leads to increased plant growth and supports various animals.

For humans, understanding seasonal flows is critical for managing water resources. Knowing the water level is crucial for collecting drinking water, planning for irrigation, and preparing for potential floods. 

Historical data of rivers

The scientists studied data from over 10,000 river measurement stations worldwide, spanning 50 years, to understand how the distribution of water flow throughout the year has changed across different areas. They used a new method called “apportionment entropy” to measure how evenly water is distributed across seasons, helping them detect changes in seasonal flow patterns. 

To separate the effects of human-caused climate change from natural variations and human activities like building dams, the experts used advanced computer models and historical reconstructions of water runoff. 

Significant changes in river flow

The researchers found that the seasonal flow patterns of roughly 21% of the rivers had changed significantly. This means the high and low points of water flow throughout the year were different from what they used to be, even though the total amount of water flowing each year may not have changed much.

The most important finding was that rivers north of 50 degrees latitude showed a clear decrease in how much their flow changed with the seasons. This is directly linked to the effects humans have had on the climate. 

In other words, these rivers are flowing in a way that is less seasonal than they used to, which disrupts their natural patterns. This change can have serious consequences for the environment, how we manage water resources, and activities that rely on predictable seasonal water flows.

Regional exceptions

Some regions, like southeast Brazil, actually saw an increase in the variation of water flow throughout the year. However, the overall global trend of decreasing seasonal river flow, especially in important northern areas, is concerning.

There are many reasons for the regional differences in river flow. Climate change can bring more extreme weather in places like southeast Brazil. In the north, warmer temperatures are causing snow to melt earlier and faster, which means there’s less water flowing in the spring. 

Even the geography of a place, like being near an ocean or mountains, can affect how climate change impacts rain and temperature, leading to different changes in river flow seasonality across regions. Humans also play a role, as activities like cutting down forests, changing land use, and building dams can all affect how water flows naturally, sometimes making the variations even bigger in some areas. 

Why is this concerning?

For plants and animals living in freshwater, these changes can be devastating. Their habitats can disappear, the number of different species can decline, and the delicate balance needed for healthy ecosystems can be thrown off track.  

“The highs and lows of river flow during the different seasons provide vital cues for the species living in the water. For example, a lot of fish use particular increases in the water as a cue to run to their breeding areas upstream or towards the sea. If they don’t have those cues, they won’t be able to spawn,” explained study co-author Dr. Megan Klaar.

For people, managing water becomes much more difficult when the flow is unpredictable. This makes it harder to share the water fairly between different needs, such as farming, drinking, and industry. Farming is especially at risk, as unreliable water supplies can damage crops and threaten food security. 

Additionally, reliable water flow is crucial for providing clean drinking water and generating electricity through hydropower. Changes in flow patterns can lead to shortages of both and even energy crises.

Broader implications

Reducing greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere is crucial, as this warming disrupts natural river flow patterns. Governments, businesses, and individuals must collaborate to achieve this goal. It requires a shift towards renewable energy sources, improved energy efficiency, and sustainable practices that minimize environmental impact.

Adapting to ongoing changes is equally important. Developing water management systems that can adjust to changing flow patterns is necessary to ensure continued access to water for drinking, agriculture, and energy production. 

Protecting and restoring natural habitats strengthens their resilience to climate change impacts, allowing them to better withstand and recover. Additionally, investing in infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, is essential for safeguarding communities and economies.

The study is published in the journal Science.


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