Downstream Warming and Headwater Acidity May Diminish Coldwater Habitat in Southern Appalachian Mountain Streams


Stream-dwelling species in the U.S. southern Appalachian Mountains region are particularly vulnerable to climate change and acidification. The objectives of this study were to quantify the spatial extent of contemporary suitable habitat for acid- and thermally sensitive aquatic species and to forecast future habitat loss resulting from expected temperature increases on national forest lands in the southern Appalachian Mountain region. The goal of this study was to help watershed managers identify and assess stream reaches that are potentially vulnerable to warming, acidification, or both. To our knowledge, these results represent the first regional assessment of aquatic habitat suitability with respect to the combined effects of stream water temperature and acid-base status in the United States. Statistical models were developed to predict July mean daily maximum water temperatures and air-water temperature relations to determine potential changes in future stream water temperatures. The length of stream considered suitable habitat for acid- and thermally sensitive species, based on temperature and acid neutralizing capacity thresholds of 20ºC and 50 μeq/L, was variable throughout the national forests considered. Stream length displaying temperature above 20ºC was generally more than five times greater than the length predicted to have acid neutralizing capacity below 50 μeq/L. It was uncommon for these two stressors to occur within the same stream segment. Results suggested that species’ distributional shifts to colder, higher elevation habitats under a warming climate can be constrained by acidification of headwater streams. The approach used in this study can be applied to evaluate climate change impacts to stream water resources in other regions.

  • Citation: McDonnell, T. C.; Sloat, M. R.; Sullivan, T. J.; Dolloff, C. A.; Hessburg, P. F.; Povak, N. A.; Jackson, W. A; Sams, C.; 2015. Downstream Warming and Headwater Acidity May Diminish Coldwater Habitat in Southern Appalachian Mountain Streams. PLOS ONE. 10(8): e0134757.

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