Aquatic alpine biodiversity is under threat by melting glaciers

Species of invertebrates – cold-blooded animals lacking a backbone – make the cold meltwater rivers of the European Alps their home.

But according to a new study in Nature Ecology & Evolution, they’re facing widespread habitat loss due to the unprecedented rate of melting glaciers from climate change.

Simulations of populations across the mountain range between now and 2100 reveal that many species are likely to become restricted to the colder habitats only persisting in the highest parts of the mountain range.

But these areas are also likely to simultaneously experience pressures from the skiing and tourism industries, or from the development of hydroelectric plants.

Lee Brown, Professor of Aquatic Science at the University of Leeds, UK, who co-led the research, says that “conservationists need to be thinking about how protected area designations must evolve to take into account the effects of climate change.”

Retreating glacier in the alps in austria
Sulztalferner, Austria. Credit: University of Leeds

The study brought together glacier, landscape, and biodiversity mapping data collected across the more than 34,000 square kilometres of European Alps. The team modelled what was likely to happen to 19 invertebrate species – mainly aquatic insects – alongside expected changes to glaciers and river flows.

“We have quantified that as glaciers melt and retreat, the rivers running through the Alps will experience major changes in their water source contributions,” says Dr Jonathan Carrivick, from the School of Geography at Leeds, who co-led the research.

“In the short term, some will carry more water and some new tributary rivers will form, but over several decades from now – most rivers will become drier, flow slower and become more stable, and there could even have periods in a year when there is no water flow.

“Additionally, most water in Alpine rivers will also be warmer in the future.” 

By the turn of the century, the modelling predicts that most of the species will have experienced “consistent losses” of habitat.

The researchers say that consistent work is necessary to protect this biodiversity.

“It may be that some species will have to be moved to refuge areas if we want to safeguard their survival as many of them are not strong fliers so they cannot disperse easily through the mountains,” says Brown.

Dr Martin Wilkes, an ecologist from the University of Essex in the UK who co-led the research, adds: “The losses we predict for Alpine biodiversity by the end of this century relate to just one of several possible climate change scenarios.” 

“Decisive action by world leaders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could limit the losses. On the other hand, inaction could mean that the losses happen sooner than we predict.” 

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