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Vanishing glaciers put mountain ecosystems at risk

03:41 PM May 10, 2023 IST | Ground report
vanishing glaciers put mountain ecosystems at risk

Glacier melting caused by climate change is occurring at an alarming rate, warns a recent study by the University of Leeds and the University of Essex. The study highlights that invertebrates residing in the cold meltwater rivers of the European Alps are at risk of losing their habitat.

This will result in the migration of many species to colder areas, which are expected to face increasing pressure from the ski and tourism industries and hydroelectric power stations. The researchers urge conservationists to take further steps to safeguard aquatic biodiversity in light of these findings.

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Invertebrates: key role in ecosystems

Invertebrates in cold meltwater rivers of the European Alps are at risk of losing their habitat due to climate change, according to a joint study by the University of Leeds and the University of Essex.

The study warns that as glaciers melt at unprecedented rates, many species are likely to be restricted to cooler habitats that will only persist in the highest mountains. This will put increasing pressure on these areas due to the development of the ski and tourism industries or hydroelectric power stations.

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Using glacier, landscape and biodiversity mapping data from the Alps, scientists from Europe simulated how climate change is expected to alter key invertebrate populations in the mountain range between now and 2100.

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As the climate warms, modelling predicted that invertebrate species will seek cooler conditions in higher-elevation parts of the mountain range. In the future, these cold areas may also be given priority for skiing or tourism or the development of hydroelectric plants.

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A new study led by Lee Browne, professor of hydrology at the University of Leeds, has highlighted the urgent need for conservationists to protect the habitat of invertebrates living in the European Alps.

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The study found that, as a result of climate change, glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate, causing invertebrates such as stoneflies, mosquitoes and flatworms to suffer severe habitat loss. These species are critical for the nutrient cycling of fish, amphibians, birds and mammals and help to alter organic matter in high mountain ecosystems.

Alpine climate is changing rapidly

The research, which involves a collaboration between nine European research institutes, gathered data on the distribution of invertebrate species in the Alps. An area that covers more than 34,000 square kilometers and was measured with the expected changes in glaciers and river flows.

There was enough data available to model what might happen to 19 species of invertebrates, mainly water-dwelling insects, that live in the cold-water areas of the Alps.

Dr Jonathan Carwick, from the Leeds School of Geography, said: "We found that as glaciers melt and recede, there will be a big change in the rivers that feed the Alps."

In the short term, some will have more water and some will form new tributaries, but within several decades most rivers will run dry. Some will flow more slowly and become more stagnant, and there may even be periods in a year when there is no water flow at all.

By the end of the century, models predict that most species will have experienced steady habitat loss.

The non-biting mosquitoes, Dymesa latitarsis grp, D. steinboeckii, and D. bertramii are expected to cause the most damage.

However, several species are also expected to benefit from habitat change, including the flatworm, Crenobia alpina, and the flathead fly, Rhythrogena loyolae.

Other species will find refuge in new places. Scientists predict that the stonefly Dictygenus alpinus and the fryfly Drusus discolor will be able to survive in the Rhône Valley in southeastern France, while other species will disappear from the rivers that flow into the Danube basin.

Conservation measures important

In their article, the researchers emphasized the urgent need to take action to protect the biodiversity of rivers affected by melting glaciers. They warned that areas, where glaciers remain by the end of this century, are likely to be targeted for the construction of hydroelectric dams and the development of ski resorts.

Dr Martin Wilkes, co-leader of the research from the University of Essex, stressed that predicted losses to alpine biodiversity could be limited if world leaders take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, inaction could result in losses sooner than expected.

The study's techniques could also be applied to other mountain regions to better understand the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. The study received funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

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