Rivers provide crucial ecosystem services in water-stressed drylands. Australian dryland rivers are geomorphologically diverse, ranging from through-going, single channels to discontinuous, multi-channelled systems, yet we have limited understanding of their sensitivity to future hydroclimatic changes. Here, we characterise for the first time the geomorphology of 29 dryland rivers with catchments across a humid to arid gradient covering >1,800,000 km2 of continental eastern and central Australia. Statistical separation of five specific dominantly alluvial river types and quantification of their present-day catchment hydroclimates enables identification of potential thresholds of change. Projected aridity increases across eastern Australia by 2070 (RCP4.5) will result in ~80% of the dryland rivers crossing a threshold from one type to another, manifesting in major geomorphological changes. Dramatic cases will see currently through-going rivers (e.g. Murrumbidgee, Macintyre) experience step changes towards greater discontinuity, characterised by pronounced downstream declines in channel size and local termination. Expanding our approach to include other river styles (e.g. mixed bedrock-alluvial) would allow similar analyses of dryland rivers globally where hydroclimate is an important driver of change. Early identification of dryland river responses to future hydroclimatic change has far-reaching implications for the ~2 billion people that live in drylands and rely on riverine ecosystem services.
Bibliographical noteAuthor correction exists for this article and can be found in Scientific Reports, 10, 12525 , doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-69597-5
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Wetlands in Drylands: conservation through environmental research, citizen science and global engagement
Tim Ralph (Participant)
Impact: Science impacts, Environment impacts, Policy impacts, Society impacts