Researchers surprised at finding streams cooler than expected
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Research based on data from 20 sites across the West suggests that stream temperatures are not warming as fast as overall air temperatures in the region.
The scientists with the U.S. Geoogical Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University who did the study cautioned that climate change remains a fundamental driver of stream ecosystems and that global warming may yet have a significant effect on stream temperatures.
But for now, other factors, including including snowmelt, interaction with groundwater, flow and discharge rates, solar radiation, wind and humidity make the equation more complex. But even after factoring out those elements, the scientists were surprised by the cooler-than-expected maximum, mean and minimum temperatures of the streams.
“Individually, you can find streams that seem to be getting warmer and others that are getting cooler,” said Ivan Arismendi, a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “Some streams show little effect at all. But the bottom line is that recent trends in overall stream temperature do not parallel climate-related trends.” Alternatively, there may be a time lag between air temperature and stream temperature, they said.
One of the biggest challenges the researchers faced was finding enough data to determine a trend.
“One surprise was how few stream gauging stations have the necessary long-term records for evaluating climate-related trends in water temperatures,” said coauthor Jason Dunham, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Most of them are located in streams with high human influence, which makes it difficult to separate climate effects from local human impacts.”
“In those areas where human impact was minimal, the variability in trends was impressive,” added Dunham, who has a courtesy appointment in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “It suggests to us that a variety of local influences may strongly affect how stream temperatures respond to climate.”
Arismendi and his colleagues considered more than 600 gauging stations for the study but only 20 of the stations had a sufficiently lengthy period of monitoring – and lacked human influence. These long-term monitoring sites are operated primarily by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service, and were located in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada and Alaska.
Coauthor Roy Haggerty, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, said warming temperatures can create more rapid or earlier snowmelt and affect stream temperatures in some locations. Another explanation for the lack of warming in many streams can be a time lag that can occur between precipitation entering underground aquifers and entering the stream.
“Groundwater can influence stream temperatures as well as streamflow and in some cases, it can take many years for that groundwater to make it to the stream,” noted Haggerty, the Hollis M. Dole Professor of Environmental Geology at OSU. “This and the other physics processes of a stream need to be considered when analyzing its heat budget – from the geology and stream bed, to the amount of shading in the riparian zone.”
“Temperature is a key indicator of water quality and many streams throughout the Northwest have increased stream temperatures associated with human activity,” Johnson said. “Generally speaking, cooler stream temperatures are beneficial, and are a crucial factor in maintaining healthy ecosystems and populations of salmon, steelhead, trout and other cold-water species.”
Arismendi, who did his doctoral work at the Universidad Austral de Chile before coming to OSU, said the study points out the value of long-term data from streams that have had minimal human impacts.
“The fact that stream temperatures don’t correlate to climate trends in a predicable way indicates we need to study the relationship further to better appreciate the complexity,” Arismendi said. “Our knowledge of what influences stream temperatures is limited by the lack of long-term monitoring sites, and previous lumping of results among streams with relatively low and high levels of human impacts.
“Local variability is really important in driving climate sensitivity of streams,” he added.
Filed under: climate and weather, Environment, global warming, rivers, water Tagged: | climate, global warming, Oregon State University, rivers, stream temperatures, U.S. Geological Survey, United States Forest Service