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Top 16 Freshwater Blog Posts of 2016

December 31, 2016
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A Finnish river in winter. Image Ville Lukka | Flickr Creative Commons

As the end of the year approaches, we’re looking back over 2016 to collect 16 of our most popular posts on aquatic lives.

It’s been a fascinating year to write about freshwater science, policy and conservation. New scientific research is shedding light on the complex nature of freshwater ecosystem responses to multiple pressures, whilst policy and management initiatives attempt to deal with the implications of an increasingly interconnected and stressed world on freshwater biodiversity and functioning.

It’s been the most successful year yet for the Freshwater Blog, with record numbers of visitors. Thanks, as ever, for reading. You can keep up to date with our posts, and add your voice to the debate through our Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Happy 2017!

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1. Balancing hydropower and biodiversity in the Amazon, Congo and Mekong basins (January)

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Inga Dam on the Congo River. Image: International Rivers | Flickr | Creative Commons

A boom in construction of major hydroelectric dam projects on the Amazon, Congo and Mekong rivers increasingly threatens a range of rare and unique freshwater biodiversity according to a new study published in Science.

Existing dams on the three basins are generally small and located in upland tributaries, but over 450 additional major dams are planned, with some already under construction.  Most of these dams are planned to be built in areas of fast water flow – such as waterfalls and rapids – which are often hotspots of high biodiversity (read more).

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2. Water pollution makes river biodiversity more vulnerable to climate warming (March)

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River Torridge in Devon, a sample site for mayflies in the study. Image: alexwhite | Flickr

Polluted rivers with low oxygen levels are more susceptible to the harmful effects of climate change, according to a new study co-authored by MARS scientist Professor Steve Ormerod.

Researchers from Cardiff University and Radboud University in the Netherlands led by Wilco Verberk used laboratory studies and over 42,000 samples from UK rivers to show that two common mayfly species are less able to tolerate rising water temperatures in polluted rivers with low oxygen levels. The breakdown of organic pollutants such as sewage and farm run-off uses oxygen, meaning that polluted waterways often suffer severe drops in dissolved oxygen levels.

The study, published in Global Change Biology (open access), adds to the growing evidence on the influence of multiple stressors in shaping how freshwater ecosystems are likely to respond to climate change. Specifically, it suggests that reductions in water pollution may help increase the resilience of freshwater biodiversity to the effects of future climate change (read more).

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3. Kathleen Carpenter: the mother of freshwater ecology (March)

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In this guest post for International Women’s Day, Dr. Catherine Duigan draws from her research on Dr. Kathleen Carpenter (1891-1970), the ‘mother’ of freshwater ecology, to suggest insights and wisdom that Carpenter might offer to new generations of freshwater scientists.

I am an ecologist born in the late 1800s, and I wrote the first British freshwater ecology textbook, Life in Inland Waters (1928). Julian Huxley, the textbook series editor, recognised that the ‘Cinderella charms’ of freshwater biology were at the time being ‘eclipsed by those of her elder and more ample sister, Marine Biology’.  My textbook was developed to support undergraduate education in the field and redress the balance.

What advice would I give to a new generation of freshwater scientists? (read more).

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4. The science and policy of multiple stressors: four reflections from the MARS Mid-Term Meeting (March)

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Daniel Hering welcoming attendees at the MARS mid-term meeting in Fulda. Image: MARS

In March, the MARS project held its mid-term meeting in Fulda, Germany.  The meeting brought together project scientists, water managers and policy makers to discuss ongoing research into freshwater multiple stressors.

(listen to four short podcasts from the meeting here)

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5. Multiple Pressures in River Basin Management (April)

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Workshop organiser Rafaela Schinegger. Image: Jörg Strackbein

In April, a group of around 60 river basin managers, Water Framework Directive officials, European Environment Agency representatives, external experts and MARS aquatic scientists met in Vienna to discuss the key challenges for freshwater management and policy across Europe.

Central to the two days of discussions was the challenge of multiple pressures: the often unpredictable interactions between individual pressures on freshwaters, such as pollution, floods, droughts and river bank alterations.  Despite growing awareness of the importance of multiple pressures, their joint impacts on aquatic ecosystems are not well understood, and as a result they are poorly reflected in existing River Basin Management Plans – the framework through which the Water Framework Directive is implemented in Europe.

There was rich science-management dialogue at the meeting, titled ‘Multiple Pressures in River Basin Management‘, which took place at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management – a MARS partner.  The MARS project is just past its halfway point, and the meeting gave the opportunity for water managers and policy makers to help shape the project’s research and outputs to ensure they are relevant and useful in practice (read more).

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6. Identifying early risks for environmental policies (May)

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A rusting ship on the dry Aral Sea. Image: kvitlauk | Creative Commons

We live in a world that never stays still.  People and places are ever more globally interconnected, dynamic and developing. Technological innovations feed into new cycles of use, waste and pollution.  Ecosystems flux over time and space through invasions and introductions, novel assemblages and emergent patterns.

Circling all of this, scientific consensus predicts an increasingly variable and warming climate in the century to come.  An age that could well be ratified later this year as a new geological epoch, fundamentally shaped by human activity and known as the Anthropocene.

How can environmental policy makers deal with such complexity and dynamism in a world they seek to positively influence?  How can environmental policies anticipate the changes of uncertain future worlds? And what research programs, early warning systems and governance structures are needed to make such ‘anticipatory policy making’ a reality?

A new Science for Environmental Policy ‘Future Brief’ addresses these questions by examining a range of tools and approaches that can be used to identify emerging environmental risks. The approaches examined include strategic foresight tools, scanning of the internet for information, citizen science and state-of-the-art monitoring technologies (read more).

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7. Can rewilding reinvigorate European nature policy? (May)

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Reflecting on restoration (Image: Per Harald Olsen)

Rewilding is a concept that has increasingly captured the attention of environmentalists and the public across the world.  Broadly put, rewilding projects attempt to restore natural ecological processes in degraded ecosystems, and often to reintroduce flora and fauna that has become locally extinct.

A new policy brief produced by Rewilding Europe and Paul Jepson from Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment argues that rewilding approaches can reinvigorate European environmental policy, and extend and improve existing restoration approaches.  In ‘Making Space for Rewilding: Creating an enabling policy environment‘, the authors frame rewilding as a ‘logical next step’ for the development of EU policy, and suggest how policy spaces for rewilding might be encouraged in the future.

Paul Jepson explains, “We need new concepts and innovation in policy for nature conservation to regain ground. Rewilding presents an opportunity to shift gear from protection to restoration, upgrading ecosystems, improving network connectivity and creating new value for people” (read more)

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8. Uncharted waters? Steering a course between Leave or Remain for the UK’s rivers and lakes (June)

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Reflecting on water in the EU. Image: Symbolique 2006

On 23rd June, British voters will decide on the future of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.  The EU is an economic and political partnership of 28 countries (or member states) which was formed after the Second World War.  The UK joined the then-European Community in 1973.  The EU provides a ‘single market’ for people, goods and capital to move easily between member states, and sets rules and standards across a wide range of areas including industry, commerce and environmental management.  By far the biggest EU expenditure is on agriculture, so the environment is, de facto, at the heart of the Union.

We report on the potential environmental impacts of a Leave vote (which was the eventual result), specifically for freshwater ecosystems (read more).

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9. When is river restoration rewilding? (June)

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Rewilding the River Waal at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunisses/ARK Nature

In May, we published an article on rewilding and environmental policy, asking the question: what might rewilding ‘do’ for degraded freshwater ecosystems that widespread and established restoration projects aren’t doing already?

Paul Jepson from Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment, author of the new rewilding policy brief with Rewilding Europe, responds to this question, describing a positive rewilding approach for freshwater management (read more).

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10. Can we geo-engineer polluted freshwaters back to health? (July)

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Green algal bloom forming a thick surface layer in Lake Dora, Florida. Image: Nara Souza | Florida Fish and Wildlife Commision | Creative Commons

‘You broke it, you own it.’  That was political ecologist Paul Robbins’ take on the results of a new experimental trial (open-access) at the University of Alberta, Canada where adding iron to eutrophic lakes was found to help manage outbreaks of harmful algal blooms.  For Robbins (and others, such as the Ecomodernist movement), the damage humans have caused to the natural world means there is a pressing need for radical and often-interventionist management to reverse decades of ecological harm.

The University of Alberta experiments suggest that one way to positively ‘own‘ damaged freshwater ecosystems is through geo-engineering, the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract environmental damage (most often climate change).

Freshwaters comprise some of the most highly altered and modified ecosystems in the world: new concrete geologies and diluted chemical flows.  In this context, a new special issue of the journal Water Research brings together 60 scientists from across the world to present findings on the effectiveness of geo-engineering approaches in managing the harmful effects of phosphorous pollution in freshwaters (read more).

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11. Freshwater Protected Areas in a Rapidly Changing World (August)

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Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park, USA. Image: nrg_crisis | Flickr Creative Commons

Protected areas are one of the key conservation tools used by environmental managers and policy makers across the world to help protect biodiversity and ecosystems.  Protected areas (for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the UK) set aside blocks of land and water in which human activities – such as fishing, farming, hunting and building – are limited as a means of promoting the survival of often rare and valuable species and ecosystems.

Freshwater protected areas face a growing set of challenges, not least to protect biodiversity and ecosystems that are open to change and move, under increasing global human demands for water. Addressing these challenges, a recent special issue of Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems compiles a set of articles examining the aims and effectiveness of freshwater protected areas globally (read more).

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12. Why a river in New Zealand is being granted ‘legal personhood’ (September)

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The Whanganui River in New Zealand. Image: Evan Goldenberg | Flickr Creative Commons

It’s a common lament to hear from freshwater conservationists: if only our rivers and lakes had better legal protection in response to the many pressures they face. In New Zealand, a new piece of environmental legislation is intended to do just that, by taking the unprecedented step of granting a river the legal rights of a citizen.

The Whanganui River legislation, called the Te Awa Tupua bill, is currently moving through parliament. If passed (which appears very likely), the bill would grant the river ‘legal personhood’, that is the right for the Whanganui tribe to speak for the river in the country’s courts, and to file lawsuits on its behalf when environmental protections are not upheld. This approach could be seen as a type of co-management, through which the rights of the river, and its health and diversity, are upheld through shared decision-making involving local Maori tribes (read more).

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13. Connecting the shifting currents of aquatic science and policy (September)

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Bridging science and policy: the River Taff in Cardiff, Wales, which has been restored in recent decades. Image: Andrew Rees | Flickr Creative Commons

Dialogues between environmental scientists and policy makers form key cogs in modern conservation and restoration practices. Scientific research can inform and support ‘evidence-based’ policy making, whilst policy makers will often prioritise and fund socially and environmentally pertinent research topics.

The multiple ways in which aquatic ecosystems support and shape human lives makes productive science-policy dialogues about their management and protection particularly important. There is a pressing need for science-policy dialogues to help form adaptive policy and management responses to such new ‘natures’, to try to build in ecosystem resilience to emerging treats to climate change and to conserve highly-pressurised biodiversity.

In this context, a new opinion piece by Steve Ormerod from Cardiff University and G. Carleton Ray from the University of Virginia argues that aquatic scientists can play a pivotal role in identifying gaps, failings and emerging trends for policy and regulatory practices. Writing in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, the authors identify the concept of resilience as an organising principle for science-policy responses to emerging human pressures. Promoting environmental resilience provides a means of bringing new ecological concepts, the importance of an ‘ecosystem approach’, and the value of ecosystem services and natural capital further into policy making (read more).

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14. Freshwater species populations fall by 81% between 1970 and 2012 (October)

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Freshwater biodiversity is decreasing across the world. Image: Mike Goehler | Flickr Creative Commons

Freshwater species populations dropped by 81% globally between 1970 and 2012, according to a new World Wildlife Fund report released today. According to the Living Planet Report 2016, this freshwater species decline is more than double that observed in land (38%) and marine (36%) populations, and population declines are predicted to continue in years to come.

Habitat loss is the major cause of declining freshwater species populations, as lakes, rivers and wetlands across the world continue to be abstracted, fragmented, polluted and damaged. As ongoing research into multiple stressors tells us, freshwater habitat loss can be caused by numerous pressures caused by human activities throughout entire catchments and river basins. Over-exploitation is another key cause of species loss, as fish and bird populations are harvested for food, and reptiles and amphibians collected for the pet trade (read more).

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15. Multiple stressors in Science of the Total Environment (November)

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MARS scientists studying multiple stressors in Lake Beyeshir, Turkey. Image: METU Limnology Laboratory

The MARS Project has been undertaking scientific research into the effects of multiple stressors on aquatic environments for nearly three years now, and project scientists are beginning to widely publish their findings.

Six new papers involving MARS research have recently been published online in the journal Science of the Total Environment, some of which are currently available for free through open-access publishing (read more).

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16. Conservation and restoration of riparian zones under multiple pressures (November)

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Riparian zone around Burns Run, Clinton County, Penn, USA. Image: Nicholas A. Tonelli | Flickr Creative Commons

Conservation efforts to maintain and restore riparian zones along many global rivers are often inadequate, according to a new study. Writing in the journal Biological Conservation, Eduardo González and colleagues draw on a body of emerging research on riparian zones to identify a range of ecological, socio-economic and policy pressures for their fragmented distributions.

Riparian zones are the ecosystems found along the banks of rivers and streams: narrow transitional zones between land and water, often with diverse ecosystems that play important roles in the ecological functioning of the wider landscape. Riparian zones – often dominated by tree and plant species which thrive in damp conditions – can help buffer diffuse pollution, mitigate flood risks, store carbon, reduce bank erosion, provide shaded and cool stream water, prevent livestock from trampling fish spawning grounds, and offer valuable biodiversity habitat (read more).

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A very happy new year from all of us at the Freshwater Blog! Thanks for reading, and all the best for 2017.

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