Impacts of elevated temperature and CO2 on the critical processes underpinning resilience of aquatic ecosystems

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Ross Thompson
Monash University

Abstract from final report:

Understanding the effects of changing climates on the processes which support aquatic biodiversity is of critical importance for managing aquatic ecosystems. This research used an experimental approach to determine whether there are potential ecological surprises in terms of threshold relationships between climate and critical aquatic processes. These results were then placed in the context of the potential for riparian replanting to mitigate against these impacts.

A review was carried out of climate change experiments in freshwaters, and revealed that the vast majority of studies have failed to take into account predicted increases in the frequency of extreme events (such as heatwaves) on biota. In order to include these components of changes in climate, a methodology was developed for downscaling global circulation models of climate change to generate realistic temperature data to use as an experimental treatment. Stream communities from the field were brought into experimental flumes and warmed according to the predictions of the down-scaled climate change models. Experiments were run for six weeks and responses were measured for basal processes (algal productivity and carbon dynamics) and aquatic invertebrate communities. Basal processes showed relatively small responses to the changed temperature regime, and appear to be relatively resistant for warming on the scale predicted under climate change scenarios for the next century. Aquatic invertebrate communities did show some responses, but these tended to be in terms of changes in size structure withion particular taxa rather than major impacts on patterns of biodiversity.

The largest effects were seen for emerging adults of aquatic insects, were all species in the community responded in some way to our 2100 climate change treatment. Responses were species- and sex-specific. Males of all mayfly species emerged faster under 2100 temperatures compared to 1990-2000 temperatures. For the mayfly Ulmerophlebia pipinna (Leptophlebiidae), this implied a change in the sex ratio that could potentially compromise populations and, ultimately, lead to local extinctions. Furthermore, our results show a decrease in the overall community body size (average across taxa) due to a shift from bigger to smaller species. These results are in accord with the ecological rules dealing with the temperature-size relationships (in particular, Bergmann’s rule). Studies of streams in the field revealed that riparian vegetation did cool stream temperatures, and that the presence of riparian vegetation, ideally with extensive vegetation cover across the catchment, did appear to maintain higher diversity and abundance in stream invertebrate communities. Therefore it seems that restoring riparian vegetation does represent an effective means of adaptation to changing climates for temperate south eastern Australian freshwaters.

View the final report