Mark Pyron faces a daunting task over the next five years as part of an international research team examining how climate change is affecting large river basins in North America and Central Asia.
Pyron, a professor who studies aquatic systems, is a co-principal investigator on a $4.2 million study funded by the National Science Foundation. He will join researchers from the U.S. and Mongolia to develop wide-ranging scientific knowledge of river systems in two continents.
“We believe this study will have a major impact on our understanding of climate change and how river systems are influenced by changes brought about by humans.
Researchers will examine river health, food webs, biodiversity traits of fish and invertebrates, and physical and biological characteristics of river banks and basins. The project is looking at macrosystems, a larger scale than previous studies, and researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the effects of climate change.
“We will be comparing river ecosystems in North America and Mongolia to test theories about how rivers are linked to their watersheds,” Pyron said. “We will also examine how river ecosystem characteristics change with surrounding hydrogeomorphology — the underlying geology and shape of the river valley.”
The scale of the project is large, and so are the inquiries.
“We are going to be asking a lot of big picture questions,” he said. “We know that climate change has already had a major impact on rivers in Mongolia because water and air temperatures have increased over the last decade.”
While rivers in the U.S. have thus far escaped that, Pyron asks, “Is this what will happen to America’s rivers?”
The team will use data it collects to make comparisons between U.S. and Mongolian rivers.
“Mongolian rivers are considered pristine due to the lack of influence by human impact like dams and non-native fauna, like our U.S. rivers may have looked 200 years ago.”
Eleven researchers from nine universities and colleges plan to sample nine rivers in North America’s Great Basin, Great Plains and mountain steppe regions. In Mongolia, they will investigate rivers within mountainous steppe regions similar to those in the U.S.
“We believe this study will have a major impact on our understanding of climate change and how river systems are influenced by changes brought about by humans. What is really exciting is that a study of this kind has never been done on this large of a scale and with as many researchers.”
The project also will examine how Mongolian water systems could change with additional human development and the introduction of non-native plants, he said.
The principal investigator is James Thorp, a University of Kansas professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey. In a news release from the school, Thorp said researchers believe climate change could result in erratic weather, bringing U.S. waterways greater flow and floods, along with droughts.
“Our temperatures are already increasing in the Great Plains, and the precipitation pattern may also be changing.”
The large-scale measurements also will provide valuable information about different river ecosystems, including mountains, drylands, grasslands and forests.
“A lot of research has been performed on forest systems, but not so much on grassland and dryland streams and rivers,” Thorp said. “We’re going to look at a global sense of these grassland and dryland rivers and see if they are functionally different than the ones in forest and temperate areas.”
It is also the world’s second-largest landlocked country, most of it covered by grassy steppe with little arable land.
Pyron visited Mongolia in 2014, along with several principal investigators, to examine rivers for potential study and collect fish from the Eg River.
“Mongolian landscapes are spectacular, and their rivers are clear enough to observe fish from a boat,” he said. “When I visited, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the country.”