Biodiversity loss is an urgent concern in today’s Europe, with around one in four species currently threatened with extinction. Pollution, unsustainable land uses, overutilization of freshwater resources, introduction of alien species, damming and other barriers to species movement have drastically altered habitat conditions across the European freshwater. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these current threats. Geographic variation in climate change paired with regional variability in biodiversity, calls for regional assessments of the variability of European freshwater to climate change.


We present a novel framework, tailored to freshwater, that incorporates three dimensions of vulnerability; namely exposure to climate change, sensitivity to altered environmental conditions, and resilience potential. The conceptual framework for calculation of the exposure uses various indicators describing the potential future changes in the magnitude, frequency, duration, timing and variability of precipitation and temperature events. The sensitivity assessment is based on concepts such as threat, range-restricted and ecoregion-restricted criteria of freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas, the Alliance for Zero Extinction concept and the species traits approach. Our resilience approach considers resilience more broadly as a structural feature of the landscape, i.e., catchments, and not solely as a species’ trait. To account for the hydrological catchment connectivity we considered natural dispersal barriers and dams.

Within this first regional assessment of the climate change vulnerability of European freshwater our vulnerability framework has been applied at the pan-European scale to 1,685 freshwater species, including plants, fishes, molluscs, odonates, amphibians, crayfish and turtles. 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 and identify priority catchments that facilitate the development of broad-scale climate change conservation management strategies.


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 out of 18,783 studied lake and river catchments are highly vulnerable to climate change. The anthropogenic disruption of hydrologic habitat connectivity by dams is the major factor reducing climate change resilience. A gap analysis demonstrated that the current European protected area network covers less than 25 % of the most vulnerable catchments.


Climate change is expected to amplify existing threats within catchments, alongside causing novel shifts in the hydrological, thermal and biotic components of freshwater ecosystems. The ability of species and communities to adapt to climate change, together with the availability of in-stream refugia and options for species to move across natural and artificial barriers, will become increasingly important as time progresses. Management actions and mitigation strategies are important instruments in dealing with climate change and should be supported by systematic conservation planning and long-term monitoring schemes that rely on a synergetic use of in situ measurements and earth observation data. A shift in thinking from terrestrial management approaches to one of focal areas, critical management zones and catchment management zones will provide the framework for freshwater management. Within this framework, immediate action should include a review of management plans to ensure that freshwater systems are targets for conservation and identification of opportunities to increase catchment resilience. To sustain freshwater biodiversity in the future, a proactive, strategic and holistic management approach is needed to reconcile the needs of all ecosystem actors.

Future ideas/collaborators needed to further research?

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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doi: 10.1111/gcb.13657



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The long-term goal of the FreswaterBiodiversity team is to improve the capacity to protect and manage freshwater biodiversity in face of global change. Our expertise includes ecological modeling, c...

Round: Open Peer Vote
Category: Climate Science Prize