Climate and Aquatic Ecosystems

Science Center Objects

Effects of changing climate on aquatic ecosystems requires understanding a complex series of interactions between terrestrial climates, their corresponding impacts on hydrological processes, and ultimately a suite of biological responses. These uncertainties stand in contrast to the urgent need for reliable information to be used in developing long-term strategies for climate adaptation to effectively manage threatened and endangered species and ecosystem services. We have approached the question of climate impacts in three ways: 1) by evaluating ecosystem responses to historical climatic variability, 2) contrasting climate versus other threats to aquatic species on contemporary time frames, and 3) developing approaches to projecting future conditions and guidelines for application.

Our work has often focused on understanding changes in stream flows and water temperatures, as these two factors are expected to be most responsive to climate and have impacts on a broad range of species. We have employed analyses of historical time series of water temperatures and long-term records of population abundance, as well as growth histories of long-lived individuals (e.g., freshwater mussels), to better understand both physical and biotic responses to observed climate variability. Our efforts to evaluate climate impacts across the range of broadly distributed and climatically sensitive species (e.g., threatened bull trout and inland cutthroat trout subspecies) are identifying threats from climate, as well as contemporary human-related influences. We are also studying how species respond to temporally and spatially variable climate-related conditions (e.g., behavioral thermoregulation, species phenologies, spatial landscape processes), which will provide key insights into their resilience as future changes are manifested. Studies about species responses to climate are evaluating sources and propagation of uncertainty so that key information gaps can be identified and addressed.

We are in the first decades of many to come that will be centered on understanding climate change. Our goal is to produce a durable foundation of scientific information that will be useful for years to come.