Water and climate

 Climate change is commonly described as having a coastal consequence, namely rising sea levels.

But there are impacts on and around inland waters, too. Among other things, they include where rain falls, when it falls and how hard it falls – variables that bring floods, droughts and all their associated costs and disruptions.

In the Northeast, where much of my fieldwork has taken place, the frequency of extreme weather events is up, as illustrated in the accompanying photo that was shot not far from where I live in New Hampshire.

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Heavy rains that carve roads to pieces, sweep away bridges and damage culverts aren’t the only disruptions that are tied to a changing climate, however.

Ice-outs on lakes in the region are occurring earlier, shortening the seasons for recreation industries such as ice-fishing. The phenomenon is widespread; earlier this year The New York Times reported that thousands of northern lakes across the globe that previously iced up are going ice-free through winters.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures are affecting what lives in rivers and lakes,since some fish prefer cold waters and others prefer warm.

Even if you aren’t into fishing, I recommend this recent study of salmon and climate change by a Copenhagen for its easy-to-digest report on the many ways that changes in temperature can affect a single species of fish that migrates between marine waters and freshwater streams –  changes to how they migrate, when they spawn, what they eat, what infects them, and what preys on them.

That report leaves unanswered some questions regarding climate change on fish life. There are knowledge gaps that need to be filled, and that shortcoming isn’t likely limited to impacts of rising temperatures on fish.

Still, in some quarters, enough is known about climate change and water to stake out hard positions.  But even among those who value science and scientific inquiry, differences can exist.

Consider, for example, the subject of dams.

International Rivers, a California-based research and advocacy group, argues that dams – particularly large dams – are part of the climate change problem and should be taken down. “River-wrecking dams are the wrong choice for a warming world,” the organization says, partly for the greenhouse gasses that they produce.

From the precisely opposite side is the argument that the storage capacity of large dams is what, in fact, is needed to assure adequate water supplies in a period of rainfall instability. The argument is made in a paper published in the Journal of Hydrology.

Bottom line: The subject of climate change and water isn’t only about sea levels rising; it’s about a great many dimensions of Nature, and it’s also about us.