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Thursday 22 April 2021

Going with the flow

Inkanoack (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)
Ice is often overlooked. A small fraction of water, hostaged on land – it’s even missed out on the water cycle provided by the national curriculum. However, as the climate changes, so do habitats, including icy ones. When the glaciers melt, less water is locked up as ice and more is available as freshwater for life. Researchers have been fascinated by this process and in particular the kind of new life that springs from glacial melts. Interestingly, however, as more water becomes available and the climate becomes more temperate, what is observed is a loss of biodiversity. Specialist organisms designed for living in harsh, cold, wintry environments die or are out-competed by more common species already found in neighbouring environments. The conclusion is that the unforgiving glaciers provide pockets for more unusual lifeforms to flourish.

Rivers are a primary source of water and habitats for living things. Unfortunately, this fast-flowing, fast-changing environment is incredibly difficult to measure and monitor reliably. Temperatures and chemical composition of rivers change – lots, and often. Rivers in valleys tend to have more sources of water than those at higher elevation. Seasons and geography contribute. This is known as catchment hydrology. One source is groundwater. Groundwater has a pretty stable year round temperature and acts as a moderator; in areas where the groundwater contribution to river water is big, river temperatures tend to be stable. Meanwhile, rivers near the north and west of England are influenced by the oscillation in the North Atlantic Ocean.


Current researchers in hydrology spend much of their time joining up the dots between models of different processes, such as wind direction, to sum together the factors that contribute to a given area. This can be hard work, and there are many sources of uncertainty. Scientists are working to minimise uncertainty as the demand for more accurate hydrological models goes up because of climate change.

Water and climate are changing moieties – and static and historical models are limited. Although very little systematic monitoring of climate and water exists in the UK, Scotland are currently installing a country-wide system to help them make decisions about land and water use. In the meantime, stoic scientists continue with the traditional methods of gathering information, such as monitoring indicator species, like river bed insects, that respond rapidly in number, location and health to the slightest environmental fluctuations. This makes indicator species not only excellent measures of environmental quality, but sometimes the first we hear of trouble.

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