Here’s How Climate Change is Affecting Rivers and Streams

It’s no secret that climate change is impacting the planet, but a recent study further highlighted its affect on rivers and streams. Published in the journal Science, “Globally Observed Trends in Mean and Extreme River Flow Attributed to Climate Change,” offers a telling look at shifting environmental conditions.

Researchers analyzed low, mean, and high river flows from 7,250 observatories around the world from 1971 to 2010. Based on spatially complex trend patterns, they determined some areas are drying, while others are consistently becoming wetter.

Using model simulations, the team concluded these trends support observations only consistent with radiative forces that align with climate change. They simulated effects of water and land management, and these results did not produce the same trend pattern.

River Flooding on the Rise

Climate change can potentially cause river floods to increase in both size and frequency in some places, while decreasing in size and frequency in others, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate from the land and oceans, which could affect the magnitude and occurrence of river flooding.

Variables like changes in streamflow, timing of snowmelt, and the volume of snowpack that collects in the winter can also impact flood patterns, according to the EPA.

Data from the U.S. Geological Survey revealed several telling changes in flood patterns from 1965 to 2015. For example, floods have typically increased in rivers and streams across much of the Northeast and Midwest. However, flood levels have largely decreased in the West, Southern Appalachia, and Northern Michigan.

Impact of River Flooding

Climate change — i.e., more frequent and heavier rainstorms — can increase erosion and cause larger amounts of sediment to wash into rivers, lakes, and streams, according to the EPA. Issues like this can make it more challenging to maintain a high level of water quality — which can affect the availability of drinking water sources.

Furthermore, higher levels of suspended stream sediment or changes in sediment distribution caused by more frequent and intense storms can have a negative impact on the ecosystem. This is due to shifting levels of erosion and sedimentation that pose a threat to fish, invertebrates, and aquatic vegetation — just to name a few.

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