It is no secret that climate change has a serious impact on the quality and ecology of aquatic environments. Researchers at Eawag have revealed that human responses to climate change are just as impactful on our water systems – for example, in the areas of agriculture and hydropower.
When thermometers in California recorded scorching temperatures in the summer of 2000, even the salmon in Klamath River felt the effects. The temperature of the water drove them to gather in unusually large numbers in confined spaces, creating the perfect food source for pathogens. At the same time, farmers redirected increasing amounts of water to their arid fields, which reduced the streamflow. As a result, 70,000 fish died. It transpired later that this devastating salmon-kill could have been avoided if the farmers had not diverted so much water to irrigate their land.
In a recently published study, researchers at Eawag clearly demonstrated that climate change is not the only cause of such devastating effects on aquatic ecosystems. Based on extensive literature research and expert interviews, the researchers concluded that the way humans respond to climate change is just as crucial, as exemplified in the case in California: by intensifying the irrigation of crops or switching to more drought-resistant varieties.
Indirect effects of climate change are often underestimated
We have long been aware of the direct impact of climate change on natural freshwater systems. For one, it disproportionately increases the temperature of freshwater environments in mountainous regions. But it also changes the flow rate and drainage times of watercourses – as a result of increasing summertime droughts and the continued melting of the glaciers. This does not just threaten the habitats of aquatic life and their biodiversity. Around 1.5 billion people who rely on the water resources from these mountainous regions will also suffer if the quality and quantity of the drinking water deteriorates.