JUN 23, 2020 1:45 PM PDT

Our vulnerable rivers: human impact compounds stress from climate change on river health

A study published recently in the journal One Earth cautions that anthropogenic effects are further impacting rivers that are already vulnerable to climate change. As co-authors Jim Best and Stephen Darby explain, the world’s largest rivers and their deltas are under extreme pressures from the economic, societal, and political activity of humans, all of which only compound the stress they already experience due to climate change.

Best is geology and geography professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He explains, "Climate change is of huge importance in terms of changing flood or drought frequency and intensity. However, there is a range of other stressors affecting big rivers such as damming, sediment mining, pollution, water diversions, groundwater extraction, and the introduction of nonnative species -- all of which affect rivers on a timescale that has much more immediate consequences."

While healthy rivers respond to changes in the environment through self-adjusting processes of erosion and sedimentation, stressed rivers that experience, for example, delta subsidence, groundwater extraction, sand mining, or upstream dams may not be able to adapt. This is what is happening in the Mekong River Delta, say the researchers. 

And the Mekong isn’t the only affected river. "The scale of the effects of sediment starvation and subsidence in driving increased flood risk is currently far greater than sea-level rise generated by global climate change," Best said. "But when all of these pressures are combined, there is now a real risk that we could cross a major tipping point in the next 10-20 years."

Another human factor that has a very real environmental impact on river health is politics. As Science Daily reports, the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a fall in pollution monitoring, allowing industries to pollute without paying fines if they plead the pandemic. 

"We have seen evidence of the effect of these types of political and societal shocks on river systems in the past, too," Best said. "The stresses from the Gulf War led to increased river pollution in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin, a situation that was also compounded by upstream damming in Turkey."

That’s why Best is urging for more publicity and international policy management for river health. "There are some things we as scientists can do on the monitoring end of this issue, but it will demand collaboration and trust between nations for it to make a difference," he said. "We can't take our eye off the ball -- we've just got to devote more attention to these more frequent, shorter-timescale stressors. It's far from being just about climate change."

The Mekong River Delta supports 18 million people. Photo: Pixabay

Sources: One Earth, Science Daily

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
OCT 14, 2022
Technology
Charging an Electric Vehicle in Just 10 Minutes
OCT 14, 2022
Charging an Electric Vehicle in Just 10 Minutes
Electric vehicles are common and increasingly popular alternative to vehicles powered by traditional combustion engines. ...
OCT 18, 2022
Earth & The Environment
Snatching CO2 From the Air
OCT 18, 2022
Snatching CO2 From the Air
In a recent study published in Nanoscale, a team of researchers led by the University of Pittsburgh have designed new ma ...
NOV 03, 2022
Genetics & Genomics
A new hybrid songbird from Pennsylvania
NOV 03, 2022
A new hybrid songbird from Pennsylvania
Researchers in Pennsylvania discover a new-to-science hybrid songbird species
NOV 05, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Rare Earth Elements Created in Neutron Star Mergers
NOV 05, 2022
Rare Earth Elements Created in Neutron Star Mergers
In a recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers present the first ever detection of rare Earth ele ...
NOV 18, 2022
Earth & The Environment
Grad Student Highlights: Marc Berghouse (University of Nevada, Reno)
NOV 18, 2022
Grad Student Highlights: Marc Berghouse (University of Nevada, Reno)
This interview series is focused on the graduate student experience across all STEM fields that allows them to get their ...
NOV 15, 2022
Technology
Silicon-Germanium Materials Hold Advantages for Better Computer Chips
NOV 15, 2022
Silicon-Germanium Materials Hold Advantages for Better Computer Chips
In a recent study published in the journal Small, an international team of researchers led by the Vienna University of T ...
Loading Comments...