Low flow and heatwaves alter ecosystem functioning in a stream mesocosm experiment

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Climate change is expected to intensify the effect of environmental stressors on riverine ecosystems. Extreme events, such as low flow and heatwaves, could have profound consequences for stream ecosystem functioning, but research on the impact of these stressors and their interaction across multiple processes, remains scarce. Here, we report the results of a two-month stream mesocosm experiment testing the effect of low flow (66% water level reduction, without gravel exposure) and heatwaves (three 8-d episodes of +5 °C above ambient with 10-15 days recovery between each episode) on a suite of ecosystem processes (i.e. detrital decomposition, biofilm accrual, ecosystem metabolism and DOC quantity and quality). Low flow reduced whole system metabolism, suppressing the rates of gross primary production (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER), but elevated DOC concentration. Overall, habitat contraction was the main driver of reduced ecosystem functioning in the low flow treatment. By contrast, heatwaves increased decomposition, algal accrual, and humic-like DOC, but reduced leaf decomposition efficiency. Net ecosystem production (NEP) generally decreased across the experiment but was most pronounced for low flow and heatwaves when occurring independently. Assessment of NEP responses to the three successive heatwave events revealed that responses later in the sequence were more reduced (i.e. more similar to controls), suggesting biofilm communities may acclimate to autumn heatwaves. However, when heatwaves co-occurred with low flow, a strong reduction in both ER and GPP was observed, suggesting increased microbial mortality and reduced acclimation. Our study reveals autumn heatwaves potentially elongate the growth season for primary producers and stimulate decomposers. With climate change, river ecosystems may become more heterotrophic, with faster processing of recalcitrant carbon. Further research is required to identify the impacts on higher trophic levels, meta-community dynamics and the potential for legacy effects generated by successive low flows and heatwaves.
Original languageEnglish
Article number146067
Number of pages13
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date26 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research is part of the EuroFLOW project (EUROpean training and research network for environmental FLOW management in river basins) funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 - Research and Innovation Framework Programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement (MSCA) No. 765553 awarded to MEL, AMM and RAF. This work was in part funded by NERC grant NE/K012819/1 awarded to GHSS and MEL. We thank two anonymous referees for their comments which enhanced the data analysis and the overall manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.


  • Biofilm
  • Climate change
  • Dissolved organic matter
  • Extreme climatic events
  • Metabolism
  • Multiple stressors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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