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Rising river temperatures provide new clues about climate change

River temperature is an important water quality measure which regulates physical, chemical, and biological processes in flowing water and has a significant impact on ecosystems, human health, and industrial, domestic, and recreational uses by humans.

Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Birmingham and Indiana University has argued that a better global understanding of river temperature and the factors driving temperature increases can provide a critical barometer for climate change and the effect of other human activities.

According to the experts, a comprehensive database about this water quality measure will increase our understanding of the impact of temperature changes on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and a variety of possible risks, including early warning of algal blooms, waterborne pathogens, and changes in fish populations. 

In many areas of the globe, these aspects could turn out to be critical for human survival. Moreover, rethinking how we monitor and model river temperatures will play a major part in our ability to manage, mitigate, and adapt to temperature extremes that negatively impact aquatic organisms and the ecosystem services they provide.

“More attention has been given to other water quality indicators, such as nutrients and contaminants,” said study co-lead author David Hannah, an expert in Water Sciences at Birmingham. “However, river temperature influences many of these factors. Emerging evidence shows that river temperatures are rising in response to climate change in many regions worldwide. On top of this, human activity is altering water temperature further; but we still need to better understand this phenomenon and its implications.”

“The knowledge we currently have is inconsistent, with large variations in scale and detail – and primarily taking place in richer countries. This severely limits our ability to sustainably manage river systems, protect ecosystems, and balance the competing interests of stakeholders,” added co-lead author Darren Ficklin, an associate professor of Geography at Indiana.

The scientists argue that a first step in this direction is to build a more complete and accessible river temperature archive, which gathers all available data in order to highlight information gaps and underpin models for places and times for which we currently lack data. In addition, the researchers also hope to promote collaborative research and management efforts with local and indigenous communities, thus avoiding the current “top-down” decision-making on what types of data are more valuable.

The study is published in the journal Nature Water.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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