IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

4.4.8 Freshwater wetlands, lakes and rivers

Properties, goods and services

Inland aquatic ecosystems (covering about 10.3 Mkm2) vary greatly in characteristics and global distribution. The majority of natural freshwater lakes are located in the higher latitudes, most artificial lakes occur in mid- and lower latitudes, and many saline lakes occur at altitudes up to 5,000 m, especially in the Himalaya and Tibet. The majority of natural wetlands (peatlands) are in the boreal region but most managed wetlands (rice paddies) are in the tropics and sub-tropics (where peatlands also occur). Global estimates of the area under rivers, lakes and wetlands vary greatly depending upon definition (Finlayson et al., 2005). This chapter follows the TAR in considering ‘wetlands’ as distinct from rivers and lakes. Wetlands encompass a most heterogeneous spectrum of habitats following hydrological and nutrient gradients, and all key processes, including goods and services provided, depend on the catchment level hydrology. Inland waters are subject to many pressures from human activities. Aquatic ecosystems provide a wide range of goods and services (Gitay et al., 2001; Finlayson et al., 2005). Wetlands are often biodiversity ‘hotspots’ (Reid et al., 2005), as well as functioning as filters for pollutants from both point and non-point sources, and being important for carbon sequestration and emissions (Finlayson et al., 2005). Rivers transport water and nutrients from the land to the oceans and provide crucial buffering capacity during drought spells especially if fed by mountain springs and glaciers (e.g., European summer 2003; Box 4.1; Chapter 12, Section 12.6.1). Closed lakes serve as sediment and carbon sinks (Cohen, 2003), providing crucial repositories of information on past climate changes.

Key vulnerabilities

Gitay et al. (2001) have described some inland aquatic ecosystems (Arctic, sub-Arctic ombrotrophic bog communities on permafrost, depressional wetlands with small catchments, drained or otherwise converted peatlands) as most vulnerable to climate change, and have indicated the limits to adaptations due to the dependence on water availability controlled by outside factors. More recent results show vulnerability varying by geographical region (Van Dam et al., 2002; Stern, 2007). This includes significant negative impacts across 25% of Africa by 2100 (SRES B1 emissions scenario, de Wit and Stankiewicz, 2006) with both water quality and ecosystem goods and services deteriorating. Since it is generally difficult and costly to control hydrological regimes, the interdependence between catchments across national borders often leaves little scope for adaptation.


Climate change impacts on inland aquatic ecosystems will range from the direct effects of the rise in temperature and CO2 concentration to indirect effects through alterations in the hydrology resulting from the changes in the regional or global precipitation regimes and the melting of glaciers and ice cover (e.g., Chapters 1 and 3; Cubasch et al., 2001; Lemke et al., 2007; Meehl et al., 2007).

Studies since the TAR have confirmed and strengthened the earlier conclusions that rising temperature will lower water quality in lakes through a fall in hypolimnetic (see Glossary) oxygen concentrations, release of phosphorus (P) from sediments, increased thermal stability, and altered mixing patterns (McKee et al., 2003; Verburg et al., 2003; Winder and Schindler, 2004; Jankowski et al., 2006). In northern latitudes, ice cover on lakes and rivers will continue to break up earlier and the ice-free periods to increase (Chapter 1; Weyhenmeyer et al., 2004; Duguay et al., 2006). Higher temperatures will negatively affect micro-organisms and benthic invertebrates (Kling et al., 2003) and the distribution of many species of fish (Lake et al., 2000; Poff et al., 2002; Kling et al., 2003); invertebrates, waterfowl and tropical invasive biota are likely to shift polewards (Moss et al., 2003; Zalakevicius and Svazas, 2005) with some potential extinctions (Jackson and Mandrak, 2002; Chu et al., 2005). Major changes will be likely to occur in the species composition, seasonality and production of planktonic communities (e.g., increases in toxic blue-green algal blooms) and their food web interactions (Gerten and Adrian, 2002; Kling et al., 2003; Winder and Schindler, 2004) with consequent changes in water quality (Weyhenmeyer, 2004). Enhanced UV-B radiation and increased summer precipitation will significantly increase dissolved organic carbon (DOC, see Glossary) concentrations, altering major biogeochemical cycles (Zepp et al., 2003; Phoenix and Lee, 2004; Frey and Smith, 2005). Studies along an altitudinal gradient in Sweden show that NPP can increase by an order of magnitude for a 6°C air temperature increase (Karlsson et al., 2005). However, tropical lakes may respond with a decrease in NPP and a decline in fish yields (e.g., 20% NPP and 30% fish yield reduction in Lake Tanganyika due to warming over the last century – O’Reilly et al., 2003). Higher CO2 levels will generally increase NPP in many wetlands, although in bogs and paddy fields it may also stimulate methane flux, thereby negating positive effects (Ziska et al., 1998; Schrope et al., 1999; Freeman et al., 2004; Megonigal et al., 2005; Zheng et al., 2006).

Boreal peatlands will be affected most by warming (see also Sections 4.4.5 and 4.4.6) and increased winter precipitation as the species composition of both plant and animal communities will change significantly (Weltzin et al., 2000, 2001, 2003; Berendse et al., 2001; Keller et al., 2004; Sections 4.4.5 and 4.4.6). Numerous arctic lakes will dry out with a 2-3°C temperature rise (Smith et al., 2005; Symon et al., 2005). The seasonal migration patterns and routes of many wetland species will need to change and some may be threatened with extinction (Inkley et al., 2004; Finlayson et al., 2005; Reid et al., 2005; Zalakevicius and Svazas, 2005; Box 4.5).

Small increases in the variability of precipitation regimes will significantly impact wetland plants and animals at different stages of their life cycle (Keddy, 2000). In monsoonal regions, increased variability risks diminishing wetland biodiversity and prolonged dry periods promote terrestrialisation of wetlands as witnessed in Keoladeo National Park, India (Chauhan and Gopal, 2001; Gopal and Chauhan, 2001). In dryland wetlands, changes in precipitation regimes may cause biodiversity loss (Bauder, 2005). Changes in climate and land use will place additional pressures on already-stressed riparian ecosystems along many rivers in the world (Naiman et al., 2005). An increase or decrease in freshwater flows will also affect coastal wetlands (Chapter 6) by altering salinity, sediment inputs and nutrient loadings (Schallenberg et al., 2001; Flöder and Burns, 2004).