Vulnerability of European freshwater catchments to climate change

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Abstract

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the current threats to freshwater ecosystems, yet multifaceted studies on the potential impacts of climate change on freshwater biodiversity at scales that inform management planning are lacking. The aim of this study was to fill this void through the development of a novel framework for assessing climate change vulnerability tailored to freshwater ecosystems. The three dimensions of climate change vulnerability are as follows: (i) exposure to climate change, (ii) sensitivity to altered environmental conditions and (iii) resilience potential. Our vulnerability framework includes 1685 freshwater species of plants, fishes, molluscs, odonates, amphibians, crayfish and turtles alongside key features within and between catchments, such as topography and connectivity. Several methodologies were used to combine these dimensions across a variety of future climate change models and scenarios. The resulting indices were overlaid to assess the vulnerability of European freshwater ecosystems at the catchment scale (18 783 catchments). The Balkan Lakes Ohrid and Prespa and Mediterranean islands emerge as most vulnerable to climate change. For the 2030s, we showed a consensus among the applied methods whereby up to 573 lake and river catchments are highly vulnerable to climate change. The anthropogenic disruption of hydrological habitat connectivity by dams is the major factor reducing climate change resilience. A gap analysis demonstrated that the current European protected area network covers <25% of the most vulnerable catchments. Practical steps need to be taken to ensure the persistence of freshwater biodiversity under climate change. Priority should be placed on enhancing stakeholder cooperation at the major basin scale towards preventing further degradation of freshwater ecosystems and maintaining connectivity among catchments. The catchments identified as most vulnerable to climate change provide preliminary targets for development of climate change conservation management and mitigation strategies.

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