Sensitivity of aquatic ecosystems to climatic and anthropogenic changes: The basin and range, American Southwest and Mexico

Nancy Grimm, A. Chacon, C. N. Dahm, S. W. Hostetler, O. T. Lind, P. L. Starkweather, W. W. Wurtsbaugh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Variability and unpredictability are characteristics of the aquatic ecosystems, hydrological patterns and climate of the largely dryland region that encompasses the Basin and Range, American Southwest and western Mexico. Neither hydrological nor climatological models for the region are sufficiently developed to describe the magnitude or direction of change in response to increased carbon dioxide; thus, an attempt to predict specific responses of aquatic ecosystems is premature. Instead, we focus on the sensitivity of rivers, streams, springs, wetlands, reservoirs, and lakes of the region to potential changes in climate, especially those inducing a change in hydrological patterns such as amount, timing and predictability of stream flow. The major sensitivities of aquatic ecosystems are their permanence and even existence in the face of potential reduced net basin supply of water, stability of geomorphological structure and riparian ecotones with alterations in disturbance regimes, and water quality changes resulting from a modified water balance. In all of these respects, aquatic ecosystems of the region are also sensitive to the extensive modifications imposed by human use of water resources, which underscores the difficulty of separating this type of anthropogenic change from climate change. We advocate a focus in future research on reconstruction and analysis of past climates and associated ecosystem characteristics, long-term studies to discriminate directional change vs. year to year variability (including evidence of aquatic ecosystem responses or sensitivity to extremes), and studies of ecosystems affected by human activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1023-1041
Number of pages19
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jun 30 1997


  • American Southwest
  • Anthropogenic change
  • Aquatic ecosystems
  • Arid lands
  • Basin and Range
  • Climate change
  • Lakes
  • Permanence
  • Reservoirs
  • Rivers
  • Stability
  • Streams
  • Water balance
  • Western Mexico

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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