Salinization of river and lake ecosystems: a

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image: Salt precipitation in the Soldevila stream in Sallent (Barcelona).
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Credit: Jordi Badia / Montsalat

The increasing salinity of freshwater habitats — rivers, lakes, wetlands, etc. — is a global threat to the conservation of the world’s biodiversity and natural habitats. Human activities such as mining and intensive agriculture, as well as sea level rise caused by climate change, are driving the concentration of salt in continental waters to unprecedented levels. Salt pollution alters natural habitat leading to loss of species, spread of invasive organisms and altered nutrient cycling, for example. In addition, it has another downside: it damages the ecosystem services that provide society with lakes, streams and basins. Despite evidence of the dramatic effects of salinization, there is insufficient scientific knowledge to predict the consequences on freshwater ecosystems.

A scientific team, in which ten countries participated, joined forces to analyze current knowledge on this subject and establish a guideline to improve understanding of the effect of salt in aquatic ecosystems around the world. The article was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Its first author is postdoctoral researcher David Cunillera-Montcusí, and one of the co-authors is Serra Hunter lecturer Miguel Cañedo-Argüelles, both members of the Ecology, Hydrology and Water Management Research Group (FEHM) of the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona. The article counts on the participation of teams from the University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia, the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) and the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC), among other institutions.

Specifically, the team proposes a research agenda for the international scientific community that addresses the most pressing needs from a global, regional, local and temporary perspective, with new approaches specifically covering key shortages in this area of ​​research. research.

The dangers of water salinization in the environment

According to the authors, overall, the current knowledge on salinization is uneven according to geographical areas (for example, the effect of salt applied to roads to prevent the formation of ice has not been studied in Europe whereas it has been widely studied in North America). Moreover, the most forgotten regions of Africa and South America, where salinization factors are increasing, have not yet studied the subject. In general, much of the current work ignores small freshwater habitats such as ponds, which are important ecosystems in regional biodiversity.

There is a lack of information on the effects of different types of salts in the aquatic environment, as well as its environmental impact at regional and landscape scales, and in ecosystem-scale processes (emissions greenhouse gases, nutrient removal, etc.). Also, most studies focus on aquatic invertebrates, while there is still a lack of knowledge on the effect of salinization on the microorganisms that drive the nutrient cycle and are at the top of the food pyramid of the ocean. water (fish, reptiles and amphibians).

“As part of the study, we have worked out a research agenda with the most urgent gaps to be filled and proposed several ways to approach them from several angles. For each perspective, we mention three main axes and suggest experiments, methods and aspects that will promote the advancement of new studies in this field”, notes David Cunillera-Montcusí, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the FEHM of the University of Barcelona.

“The global trend of lakes and rivers is a great challenge for freshwater biodiversity, the functioning of ecosystems and the human societies that depend on them,” adds Miguel Cañedo-Argüelles, Serra Hunter Professor in the Department of Evolutionary Biology. , Ecology and Environmental Sciences from the UB and member of the FEHM and the Water Research Institute (IdRA) of the University of Barcelona.

“To meet this challenge, we need a joint effort of the scientific community, practitioners, local communities and policy makers,” says Sandra Brucet, researcher at ICREA, University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia. Miguel Matias, researcher at MNC-CSIC, concludes that “with the collaborative effort of the international team of scientists who published the review article, we want to promote this global effort in order to move in this direction and to stimulate interest in this global problem that will lead us to a saltier world with many salinized lakes and rivers, and for which we must prepare”.


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