Predicting combined effects of land use and climate change on river and stream salinity

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Agricultural, industrial and urban development have all contributed to increased salinity in streams and rivers, but the likely effects of future development and climate change are unknown. I developed two empirical models
to estimate how these combined effects might affect salinity by the end of this century (measured as electrical conductivity, EC). The first model predicts natural background from static (e.g. geology and soils) and dynamic
(i.e. climate and vegetation) environmental factors and explained 78% of the variation in EC. I then compared the estimated background EC with current measurements at 2001 sites chosen probabilistically from all conterminous USA streams. EC was more than 50% greater at 34% of these sites. The second model predicts deviation of EC from background as a function of human land use and environmental factors and explained
60% of the variation in alteration from background. I then predicted the effects of climate and land use change on EC at the end of the century by replacing dynamic variables with published projections of future conditions
based on the A2 emissions scenario. By the end of the century, the median EC is predicted to increase from 0.319 mS cm21 to 0.524 mS cm21 with over 50% of streams having greater than 50% increases in EC and 35% more than doubling their EC. Most of the change is related to increases in human land use, with climate change accounting for only 12% of the increase. In extreme cases, increased salinity may make water unsuitable for human use, but widespread moderate increases are likely a greater threat to stream ecosystems
owing to the elimination of low EC habitats.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Salt in freshwaters: causes, ecological
consequences and future prospects’.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B
StatePublished - Dec 3 2018


  • climate change
  • land use
  • salinity
  • specific electrical conductivity


  • Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology
  • Hydrology
  • Water Resource Management

Cite this