Neglected aspects in the alteration of river flow and riverine organic matter dynamics: a global perspective

Shumilova, Oleksandra (2018) Neglected aspects in the alteration of river flow and riverine organic matter dynamics: a global perspective. PhD thesis, University of Trento, Freie Universitaet Berlin.

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In the current era of the Anthropocene, human activities are powerful forces that affect the geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere – globally, fundamentally, and in most cases irreversibly. In freshwaters, land use change, chemical pollution, decline in biodiversity, spread of invasive species, climate change, and shifts in the hydrological regime are among the key drivers of changes. In the 21st century, major water engineering projects such as large dams and water diversion schemes will fundamentally alter the natural hydrological regime of entire landscapes and even continents. At the same time, the hydrological regime is the governing variable for biodiversity, ecosystem functions and services in river networks. Indeed, there will be an increasing conflict between managing water as a resource for human use and waters as highly valuable ecosystems. Therefore, research needs to unravel the challenges that the freshwaters are facing, understand their potential drivers and impacts, and develop sustainable management practices – for the benefit of humans and ecosystems alike. The present thesis focuses on three currently understudied alterations in flow and material dynamics within river networks, namely (i) on the dynamics of floating organic matter (FOM) and its modification in dammed rivers, (ii) on river intermittency and its effects on nutrient and organic matter (OM) dynamics, and (iii) on major future water transfer schemes. Massive construction and operation of dams cause modification of water flow and material fluxes in rivers, such as of FOM. FOM serves as an essential component of river integrity, but a comprehensive understanding of its dynamics is still lacking. River damming, climate change and water extraction for human needs lead to a rapid expansion in number and extent of intermittent rivers worldwide, with major biogeochemical consequences on both regional and global scales. Increased intermittency of river networks also forces people to implement engineering solutions, such as water transfer schemes, which help to supply water to places of demand. Water transfer projects introduce artificial links among freshwater bodies modifying the hydrological balance. Impacts of abovementioned activities on freshwaters have been assessed in single case studies. However, the current knowledge does not allow a generalization of their globally applicable meaning for ecosystems. Furthermore, mostly neglected aspects of these alterations, such as the potential consequences of FOM extraction from rivers, the biogeochemical role of intermittent rivers upon rewetting, and the current scale of water transfers require better understanding before bold conclusions could be made. By combining research methods such as extensive literature reviews, laboratory experiments and quantitative analyses including spatial analyses with Geographic Information Systems, I investigated (1) the natural cycle, functions, and amounts of FOM in rivers fragmented by dams, (2) effects of rewetting events on the pulsed release of nutrients and OM in intermittent rivers and ephemeral streams (IRES), and (3) the potential extent of water transfer megaprojects (WTMP) that are currently under construction or in the planning phase and their role in modifying the global freshwater landscape. In all three cases, I provide a global perspective. The role of FOM in rivers as a geomorphological agent, a resource, a dispersal vector and a biogeochemical component was investigated based on an extensive literature review. Collected information allowed for conceptualizing its natural cycle and dynamics, applicable to a wide range of rivers. Data on FOM accumulations at 31 dams located within catchments of 13 rivers showed that damming leads to FOM entrapment (partly or completely) and modifies its natural cycling. The results of a spatial analysis considering environmental properties revealed that catchment characteristics can explain around 57% in the variation of amounts of trapped FOM. Effects of rewetting events on the release of nutrients and OM from bed sediments and course particulate organic materials (CPOM) accumulated in IRES was studied in laboratory experiments. Using a large set of samples collected from 205 rivers, located in 27 countries and distributed across five major climate zones, I determined the concentrations and qualitative characteristics of nutrients and OM released from sediments and CPOM. I also assessed how these characteristics can be predicted based on environmental variables within sampled IRES. In addition, I calculated area-specific fluxes of nutrients and OM from dry river beds. I found that the characteristics of released substances are climate specific. In the Continental zone I found the highest concentrations of released nutrients, but the lowest quality of OM in terms of its potential bioavailability. In contrast, in the Arid zone the concentrations of released nutrients were the lowest, but the quality of OM the highest. The effect of environmental variables on the concentrations of nutrients and the quality of OM was better predicted for sediments than for other substrates with the highest share of explained variance in the Continental and Tropical zones. On the global scale, dissolved organic carbon, phenolics, and nitrate dominate fluxes released during rewetting events. Overall, this study emphasized that on the global scale rewetting events in IRES represent biogeochemical “hot moments”, but characteristics of released nutrients and OM differ greatly among climate zones. The present thesis fills also a major knowledge gap on the global distribution of large water transfer schemes (referred to as “megaprojects”) that are actually planned or under construction. To provide an inventory of WTMP, I collected data from various literature sources, ranging from published academic studies, the official web-sites of water transfer projects, environmental impact assessments, reports of non-governmental organizations, and information available in on-line newspapers. In total, 60 WTMP were identified. Information on spatial location, distances and volumes of water transfer, costs, and purposes of WTMP was collected and compared with those of existing schemes. The results showed that North America, Asia and Africa will be the most affected by future WTMP having the highest densities of projects and the largest water transfer distances and volumes. If all projects were completed by 2050, the total water transfer distances would reach 77,063 km transferring more than 1,249 km3 per year, which corresponds to about 20 times the annual flow of the river Rhine. The outcomes of the thesis provide major implications for environmental management. Natural FOM is an important component for sustaining the ecological and geomorphic integrity of rivers and, therefore, should be managed appropriately. Intermittent rivers must be considered in models quantifying nutrient and OM fluxes in river networks. First flush events in particular release huge amounts of nutrients and OM, which may cause dramatic metabolic effects on downstream receiving waters. Finally, the future WTMP alter the hydrological balance of entire river basins and continents. They require multiple assessments before construction and careful management practices for sustainable operation in order to consider both freshwater as a resource as well as freshwaters as pivotal ecosystems.

Item Type:Doctoral Thesis (PhD)
Doctoral School:Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering
PhD Cycle:30
Subjects:Area 08 - Ingegneria civile e Architettura > ICAR/01 IDRAULICA
Area 05 - Scienze biologiche > BIO/07 ECOLOGIA
Area 05 - Scienze biologiche > BIO/13 BIOLOGIA APPLICATA
Area 04 - Scienze della terra > GEO/04 GEOGRAFIA FISICA E GEOMORFOLOGIA
Uncontrolled Keywords:Floating organic matter; river ecology; hydrodynamics
Funders:SMART - Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate
Repository Staff approval on:09 May 2018 12:34

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