High climatic sensitivity and lack of significant antrhopogenic impacts make glacierized river basins important environments for examining hydrological and ecological response to global change.
Aquatic ecosystems in high latitude and altitude environments are influenced strongly by cryospheric and hydrological processes due to links between atmospheric forcing, snowpack/glacier mass-balance, river discharge, physico-chemistry and biota. In the current phase of global climate warming, many glaciers are shrinking. Loss of snow and ice-masses will alter spatial and temporal dynamics in bulk basin runoff with important changes in the relative contributions of snowmelt, glacier melt and groundwater to stream flow. Accordingly, altered water source contributions will be accompanied by changes to fluvial solute, sediment and thermal regimes and, thus, channel stability and habitat. The projected reduction in sediment load, warmer water temperatures and increased channel stability will drive significant shifts in the floral and faunal composition of glacier-fed rivers.
It is hypothesised that glacier shrinkage and associated changes in runoff amount and timing, water sources contributions and physicochemical habitat will be a major driver of biodiversity changes in stream communities in cold environments with the potential loss of endemic and cold stenothermic species. Changes in runoff will also have a major influence on fish populations.
Researchers in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences have conducted extensive field research on this topic in the French Pyrenees, New Zealand, Alaska, Himalayas and Swedish Lappland, funded from a variety of sources including the EU seventh framework programme (EU-FP7), the European Centre for Arctic Environmental Research (ARCFAC) and NERC.
The School is one of 35 partners in a successful EU-FP7 large-scale integrated project entitled 'Assessing climatic change and impacts on the quantity and quality of water (ACQWA)' under the Topic 'Climate Change Impacts on Vulnerable Mountain Regions'. This consortium grant is worth over 6.5M Euros and aims to assess the impact of climate change on the quantity and quality of water in mountain regions, particularly where snow and glaciers serve as a major hydrological stores. ACQWA has a 5-year research programme and is co-ordinated by the University of Geneva. ACQWA will continue research in the French Pyrenees (where investigations have been ongoing for over a decade) and also establish new field sites in the Swiss Alps. In addition, an ARCFAC grant, in collaboration with NERC, looked at extending hydroecological research in a further Arctic site through a summer 2009 campaign in NyAlesund on Svalbard. Research will also continue in Lappland, examining longitudinal hydroecological changes in a catchment with a shrinking glacier, a complex extra-glacial hydrology and a number of lakes. The image above shows the installation of a gauging station in a stream in Swedish Lapp.