Rising river temperatures hold important clues about climate and other human impacts

Rising river temperatures hold important clues about climate and other human imp
An improved global understanding of river temperature could provide an important barometer for climate change and other human activities.  River temperature is the fundamental water quality measure that regulates physical, chemical and biological processes in flowing waters and, in turn, impacts ecosystems, human health, and industrial, domestic and recreational uses by people. In a comment piece in the new journal, Nature Water, researchers led by the University of Birmingham and Indiana university, together with Utrecht University, have called for an increased focus on both river temperatures and the factors driving temperature increases. In particular, the researchers argue, we need a better understanding of the role played by humans on river water temperature.

Comprehensive knowledge bank

A comprehensive bank of knowledge will lead to improved understanding of temperature changes on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and risks, including early warning of algal blooms, waterborne pathogens and effects on fish populations. These aspects may be critical for human survival in many areas of the globe.

Water temperature is a key driver for many water quality indicators, and directly impacts ecology and energy production via cooling water.

Niko Wanders


Crucial to this understanding will be to rethink how we monitor and model river temperatures to improve our diagnosis of critical changes. In turn, this will play an important part in our ability to manage, mitigate and adapt to high temperature extremes that are damaging to aquatic organisms and ecosystem services for people.

Human impact on the natural system

Water temperature is a key driver for many water quality indicators, and directly impacts ecology and energy production via cooling water, explains Niko Wanders  researcher at Utrecht University and coauthor of the new study. We currently have very limited information on observed water temperature trends, and the data that is available is mainly focused on richer countries. At Utrecht University we develop models that can provide the required information and shed light on these water temperature trends. However, we should focus more on the impact that humans have on the natural system to sustainably manage river systems, protect ecosystems and balance the competing interests of stakeholders.

The researchers suggest a first step would be to create more complete and accessible river temperature archive, which draws all available data together, to highlight information gaps and underpin models for places and times (for example, into the future) for which we lack data. By co-producing river temperature knowledge in this way, the researchers also hope to promote collaborative research and management efforts with local and indigenous communities, avoiding ’top-down’ decision-making on which types of data are most valuable.

Publication

Ficklin, D.L., Hannah, D.M., Wanders, N. et al. Rethinking river water temperature in a changing, human-dominated world. Nat Water  1 , 125’128 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44221­’023 -00027-2