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Increasing Risk of Ecological Change to Major Rivers of the World With Global Warming

Thompson, J. R.; Gosling, S. N.; Zaherpour, J.; Laizé, C. L. R.

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J. R. Thompson

Professor of Climate Risks and Environmental Modelling

J. Zaherpour

C. L. R. Laizé


The hydrological characteristics of a river, including the magnitude and timing of high and low flows, are important determinants of its ecological functioning. Climate change will alter these characteristics, triggering ecological changes in river ecosystems. This study assesses risks of ecological change in 321 major river basins across the globe due to global warming relative to pre-industrial conditions of 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 and 3.0°C. Risks associated with climate-driven changes to high and low flows, relative to baseline (1980–2010; 0.6°C warming), are investigated using simulations from nine global hydrological models forced with climate projections from five global climate models, resulting in an ensemble of 14,445 baseline-scenario members for each warming scenario (9×5×321). At the global-scale, the likelihood of high risks of significant ecological change in both high and low flows increase with global warming: across all basins there is a medium-high risk of change in high (low) flows in 21.4% (22.4%) of ensemble members for 1.0°C warming, increasing to 61.5% (63.2%) for 3.0°C. Risks are particularly pronounced for low flows at 3.0°C for many rivers in South America, southern Africa, Australia, southern Europe and central and eastern USA. Results suggest that boreal regions are least likely to see significant ecological change due to modified river flows but this may be partly the result of the exclusion of processes such as permafrost dynamics from most global hydrological models. The study highlights the ecological fragility and spatial heterogeneity of the risks that unmitigated climate change poses to global river ecosystems.


Thompson, J. R., Gosling, S. N., Zaherpour, J., & Laizé, C. L. R. (2021). Increasing Risk of Ecological Change to Major Rivers of the World With Global Warming. Earth's Future, 9(11), Article e2021EF002048.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 26, 2021
Online Publication Date Oct 1, 2021
Publication Date 2021-11
Deposit Date Oct 5, 2021
Publicly Available Date Oct 5, 2021
Journal Earth's Future
Electronic ISSN 2328-4277
Publisher Wiley Open Access
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 9
Issue 11
Article Number e2021EF002048
Keywords Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous); General Environmental Science
Public URL
Publisher URL


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