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Melting glaciers pose great threat to biodiversity in mountain ranges

As glaciers continue to melt at unprecedented rates due to climate change, the invertebrates that reside in the frigid meltwater rivers of the European Alps are facing a widespread loss of habitat, warn researchers in a new study. 

These invertebrates – including stoneflies, midges, and flatworms – play a crucial role in nutrient cycling and organic matter transfer to fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals within the broader Alpine ecosystem. With their habitats under threat, researchers are urging conservationists to consider new measures to protect aquatic biodiversity.

The research study, led jointly by the University of Leeds and the University of Essex, utilized glacier, landscape, and biodiversity mapping data collected across the Alps to simulate the likely changes in key invertebrate populations throughout the mountain range between now and 2100 due to climate change. 

Invertebrates play key role

As the climate warms, the study’s models predicted that these invertebrate species would seek out colder conditions in the highest parts of the mountain range. However, these colder areas are also expected to be prioritized for skiing or tourism industries or the development of hydroelectric plants, putting additional pressure on the habitats of these vital invertebrates.

Lee Brown, Professor of Aquatic Science at the University of Leeds and co-leader of the research, emphasized the need for a shift in thinking among conservationists. He stated, “Conservationists need to be thinking about how protected area designations must evolve to take into account the effects of climate change.” 

Brown also pointed out that due to the limited mobility of many of these invertebrate species, they may have to be relocated to refuge areas to ensure their survival. “It may be that some species will have to be moved to refuge areas if we want to safeguard their survival as many of them are not strong fliers so they cannot disperse easily through the mountains,” explained Professor Brown.

The research paper, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, highlights the need for proactive measures to preserve the habitats of these critical organisms in the face of climate change. 

Climate in alpine regions is rapidly changing

In a collaborative effort between nine European research institutions, scientists have combined data on invertebrate species distribution across the expansive 34,000 square kilometer area of the Alps, mapping it alongside anticipated changes to glaciers and river flows. 

This comprehensive research has allowed them to model the likely outcomes for 19 invertebrate species, mainly aquatic insects, living in the cold-water regions of the Alps.

Dr. Jonathan Carrivick from the School of Geography at Leeds, who co-led the research, explained the implications of the melting glaciers. “We have quantified that as glaciers melt and retreat, the rivers running through the Alps will experience major changes in their water source contributions. In the short term, some will carry more water and some new tributary rivers will form, but over several decades from now – most rivers will become drier, flow slower and become more stable, and there could even have periods in a year when there is no water flow. Additionally, most water in Alpine rivers will also be warmer in the future.”

Winning species and losing species

By the turn of the century, the study’s modeling predicts that the majority of the species will experience “consistent losses” of habitat. Those expected to be hit hardest include non-biting midges like Diamesa latitarsis grp., D. steinboecki, and D. bertrami; the stonefly Rhabdiopteryx alpina; and the mayfly Rhithrogena nivata. 

On the other hand, several species, such as the flatworm Crenobia alpina and the flat-headed mayfly Rhithrogena loyolaea, are anticipated to benefit from the habitat changes.

Moreover, the researchers predict that certain species will find refuge in new locations. The stonefly Dictyogenus alpinus and the caddisfly Drusus discolor could likely survive in the Rhone valley in southeast France, while other species may be lost from the rivers flowing into the Danube basin.

Still time to reverse the trend

The researchers highlight the “substantial work” required to protect biodiversity in rivers fed by retreating glaciers in their paper. Locations where glaciers persist late into the 21st century are expected to be prioritized for hydropower dam construction and ski resort development.

Dr. Martin Wilkes from the University of Essex, who co-led the research, emphasized that the losses predicted for Alpine biodiversity by the end of the century are based on just one of several possible climate change scenarios. 

He said, “Decisive action by world leaders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could limit the losses. On the other hand, inaction could mean that the losses happen sooner than we predict.”

Understanding how invertebrate populations respond to climate change is crucial for comprehending how biodiversity in high mountainous areas could be affected. 

The techniques developed during this study could be applied to other mountain environments as well. The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council contributed to the funding of this crucial research.

More about glacial melting

Glacial melting, driven primarily by climate change, has significant consequences for both humanity and the environment. As glaciers melt, they release vast quantities of freshwater into the oceans and rivers, which can lead to a variety of impacts:

Sea level rise

One of the most direct and far-reaching consequences of glacial melting is the rise in global sea levels. As the glaciers’ freshwater melts and flows into the ocean, it contributes to the overall volume of water, leading to higher sea levels. This, in turn, can lead to flooding in coastal regions, threatening infrastructure, agricultural lands, and even entire communities.

Freshwater resources

Glaciers act as natural freshwater reservoirs, storing water in the form of ice during colder periods and releasing it as meltwater during warmer seasons. Many communities, particularly those in mountainous regions, rely on this meltwater for drinking water, agriculture, and hydroelectric power. As glaciers shrink and melt more rapidly, the long-term availability of these essential freshwater resources may be threatened.

Altered river systems

Glacial meltwater is a vital component of many river systems, particularly those originating in mountainous regions. As glaciers melt, the volume and timing of water flow in these rivers can change, potentially leading to increased flooding, altered sediment transport, and disruptions to ecosystems and human activities that depend on these rivers.

Impact on ecosystems

Glaciers and their meltwater create unique habitats for various species of plants, animals, and microorganisms. As glaciers retreat, these habitats are disrupted or lost, threatening the survival of species that are adapted to these specific conditions. Moreover, the influx of freshwater from melting glaciers can alter the salinity of nearby marine ecosystems, potentially impacting the distribution and survival of marine species.

Economic consequences

Many industries, such as tourism, agriculture, and hydropower, are directly or indirectly affected by glacial melting. For instance, ski resorts and other mountain tourism destinations may suffer due to reduced snowfall and shorter winter seasons. Farmers who rely on glacial meltwater for irrigation may face water scarcity, leading to reduced crop yields. Furthermore, changes in river flow can impact the efficiency of hydropower plants that depend on a consistent water supply.


As glaciers retreat, they can leave behind unstable slopes and large volumes of loose sediment. This can increase the risk of natural disasters such as landslides, rockfalls, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) – sudden and potentially catastrophic releases of water from glacial lakes.

Release of greenhouse gases

Glaciers and permafrost contain trapped greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. As these ice masses melt, these gases can be released into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change.

In conclusion, glacial melting has wide-ranging and interconnected impacts on humanity and the environment. Addressing the root causes of climate change, such as greenhouse gas emissions, is crucial to mitigate these impacts and protect both human and natural systems.

More about biodiversity loss

Biodiversity loss refers to the decline in the variety and abundance of species, as well as the complex interactions they have with each other and their environments. This loss can result from various factors, including habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, overexploitation, and the introduction of invasive species. The consequences of biodiversity loss are far-reaching and have significant implications for humanity and the environment:

Ecosystem stability

Biodiversity contributes to the resilience of ecosystems by allowing them to recover from disturbances and adapt to changing conditions. A diverse ecosystem is more stable and better equipped to withstand environmental stressors, such as climate change or disease outbreaks. Loss of biodiversity can weaken an ecosystem’s ability to cope with these challenges, leading to decreased ecosystem health and functioning.

Ecosystem services

Biodiversity is crucial for maintaining the essential services that ecosystems provide to humans, such as food production, water purification, climate regulation, and pollination. A decline in biodiversity can compromise these services, with potential consequences for human well-being, food security, and economic stability.

Medicinal resources

Many plants, animals, and microorganisms have unique chemical properties that can be used for medicinal purposes. Biodiversity loss can lead to the extinction of species before their potential medicinal benefits are discovered or fully understood, limiting our ability to develop new drugs and treatments for various diseases.

Food security

Biodiversity plays a vital role in ensuring food security by providing a diverse range of genetic resources for crops and livestock. Genetic diversity within and between species helps to maintain the resilience of agricultural systems and enables them to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Loss of biodiversity can make our food supply more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change.

Cultural and aesthetic value

Biodiversity contributes to the cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic aspects of human life. Many societies have deep connections to the natural world, with unique traditions and practices tied to specific species or ecosystems. The loss of biodiversity can lead to the erosion of cultural identities and the loss of opportunities for recreation, tourism, and artistic inspiration.

Climate regulation

Biodiversity plays a critical role in regulating the Earth’s climate, as ecosystems like forests and wetlands absorb and store significant amounts of carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate climate change. Loss of biodiversity can disrupt these ecosystems’ ability to sequester carbon, exacerbating climate change and its associated impacts.

Cascade effects

The loss of one species can have cascading effects on entire ecosystems, as species are interconnected through complex ecological relationships. For example, the decline of a top predator can lead to an increase in herbivore populations, which can then overgraze vegetation, ultimately causing habitat degradation and further biodiversity loss.

In conclusion, biodiversity loss has profound implications for both humanity and the environment. It threatens the stability and functioning of ecosystems, the essential services they provide, and the cultural and aesthetic values they embody. 

Addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss, such as habitat destruction, climate change, and overexploitation, is crucial for the well-being of both people and the planet.


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