Integrated bioassessment of imperiled alpine aquatic ecosystems using NPS vital signs and USGS research data: Implications for conservation under a warming climate

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Climate warming in the mid- to high-latitudes and high-elevation mountainous regions is occurring more rapidly than anywhere else on Earth, causing extensive loss of glaciers and snowpack. The loss of glaciers in Glacier National Park (GNP) is iconic of the combined impacts of global warming and reduced snowpack−all remaining 25 glaciers are predicted to disappear by 2030. These changes will impact many aquatic species, particularly range-restricted mountaintop species that show strong reductions in range due to changes in temperature and stream flow. However, little is known about the effects of climate change on stream biota, especially invertebrates, in GNP and other mountain ecosystems in the USA.

Collecting macroinvertebrates in Glacier National Park.
Collecting macroinvertebrates in Glacier National Park.Public domain

This research project aims to investigate the linkage between regional climate-change-induced glacier and snow loss on key aquatic vital signs (stream invertebrates, water chemistry, and habitat) along elevational gradients (alpine→montane streams) in GNP using integrated bioassessment and climate change modeling. The project capitalizes on a unique opportunity to synthesize biotic and abiotic data generated by the NPS Rocky Mountain Inventory and Monitoring network and USGS. The goal is to develop and apply integrated, ecologically meaningful and management relevant models to assess the biological condition of streams, which will have broad applicability to other mountainous ecosystems and Parks. To accomplish this, this project will: (1) geo-spatially relate NPS and USGS networks; (2) develop models using the River InVertebrate Prediction and Classification System (RIVPACS) method to compare predicted reference biotic composition (taxonomic completeness/occurrence) to observed assemblages as an indicator of stream condition; (3) assess the role of climate change in species loss and community composition by applying RIVPACS models to sites within drainages where glaciers have disappeared since 1850 and sites where glaciers remain; and (4) simulate future biological conditions associated with glacier/snow loss.


Funding: USGS-NPS Vital Signs Inventory and Monitoring Program

Collaborators: Dr. E. William (Billy) Schweiger (National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Inventory and Monitoring Network), Chris Downs (NPS)