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WIREs Clim Change
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Climate change and freshwater ecology: Hydrological and ecological methods of comparable complexity are needed to predict risk

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Abstract Many freshwater ecosystems are in decline because of anthropogenic disturbance including climate change, yet our understanding of ecological vulnerability to future conditions including climatic variation is limited. Understanding climate risks to freshwater ecosystems requires combining hydrological and ecological knowledge. While there have been significant advances in ecohydrological approaches when applied within the large array of methods available for undertaking impact assessments, the ecological and hydrological elements are often not well‐integrated. This results in a mismatch in their ability to accommodate the inherent uncertainty in both impacts and responses. We examine published literature that assesses climate change impacts on freshwater ecosystems using both hydrological and ecological models to better understand method choices. We identify four fundamentally distinct modeling approaches used to assess climate change risk. We discuss which approaches are less useful for predicting ecological impacts under climate change, and highlight approaches of comparable complexity that can maximize the utility of dynamic, process‐based modeling while capturing the effects of climate uncertainty and variability. Using an illustrative case study of riparian vegetation health under climate change, we show how the four alternate modeling approaches feature different degrees of information in their outcomes and inferences about future risk. Most current studies that examine climate change risks to freshwater ecosystems use simplified methods or inadequately combine key elements. However, unless the interactions between changing hydrologic variability and ecological responses are explicitly captured in scale‐sensitive modeling methods, the risks of climate change to freshwater ecosystems will likely be substantially misrepresented, with negative consequences for effective management responses. Capturing these interactions requires combining ecological and hydrological methods of comparable complexity. This article is categorized under: Climate, Ecology, and Conservation > Modeling Species and Community Interactions
Global range and spatial scale of climate change impact assessments on freshwater ecosystems. Some regional and site‐specific studies overlap. Of the six continental scale studies, three each were focused on the contiguous United States and greater Europe (these areas highlighted indicatively)
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Climate change impact assessment for river red gum forest in the Ovens River catchment, Australia, following four separate modeling strategies. (a) Key flow metric as ecological response with single sequence of perturbed hydrology as inputs (deterministic static approach). (b) Flow metric as response with 50 stochastic replicates of possible future hydrological sequences (stochastic static approach). (c) State‐transition model that tracks ecological condition through time with single perturbed historical time series (deterministic dynamic approach). (d) State‐transition model with 50 stochastic replicates of future hydrology (stochastic dynamic approach). In (b) and (d), the dots show the equivalent result from methods (a) and (c). Box plots in (b) and (d) show median results, and upper and lower 5th and 25th exceedance percentiles
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Combinations of hydrological and ecological methods used in climate change impact assessments on freshwater ecosystems based on the clusters shown in Figure 2. Studies are grouped based on their separate methodologies for modeling the hydroclimatic input and environmental response (or exposure and sensitivity, respectively, as defined by Dawson et al., 2011). Hydroclimatic input and environmental response can be represented by a single value or distribution as illustrated in “modeling strategy.” Information content is then the intersection of exposure and sensitivity (which is an analogue of the scope of vulnerability in the absence of adaptive capacity). Impact is the total change attributable to climate change. This impact may be single distance, or a range reflecting uncertainty, and it can be evaluated over one or multiple levels of environmental response using static or dynamic approaches, respectively
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Cluster analysis and MCA results for methodologies in climate change impact assessments on freshwater ecosystems. Numbers represent multiple studies that occupy the same space. Ellipses represent the 95% confidence interval for membership, and plus symbols indicate the centroid of each cluster. Note the y‐axis is inverted to keep cluster positions consistent with following figures
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