Letter | Published:

Major flood disturbance alters river ecosystem evolution

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 137141 (2013) | Download Citation


Floods, major formative drivers of channel and floodplain structure and associated riparian and in-stream communities1,2, are increasing in intensity and magnitude with climate change in many regions of the world3,4. However, predicting how floods will affect stream channels and their communities as climate changes is limited by a lack of long-term pre-flood baseline data sets across different organismal groups. Here we show salmon, macroinvertebrate and meiofauna communities, monitored for 30 years in a system evolving owing to glacier retreat, were modified significantly by a major rainfall event that caused substantial geomorphic change to the stream channel. Pink salmon, reduced to one-tenth of pre-flood spawner densities, recovered within two generations. Macroinvertebrate community structure was significantly different after the flood as some pioneer taxa, which had become locally extinct, recolonized whereas some later colonizers were eliminated. The trajectory of the macroinvertebrate succession was reset towards the community structure of 15 years earlier. Meiofaunal abundance recovered rapidly and richness increased post-flood with some previously unrecorded taxa colonizing. Biotic recovery was independent of geomorphological recovery. Markedly different responses according to the organismal group suggest caution is required when applying general aquatic ecosystem theories and concepts to predict flood events.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    , & The flood pulse concept in river-floodplain systems. Can. Spec. Publ. Fish Aquat. Sci. 106, 110–112 (1989).

  2. 2.

    et al. The natural flow regime. BioScience 47, 769–784 (1997).

  3. 3.

    , & Global pattern of trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate. Nature 438, 347–350 (2005).

  4. 4.

    Increased flood risk linked to global warming. Nature 470, 316 (2011).

  5. 5.

    , , & Morphology and evolution of salmonid habitats in a recently deglaciated river basin, Washington State, U.S.A.. Can. J. Fish Aquat. Sci. 49, 1246–1256 (1992).

  6. 6.

    , & The development of hydraulic and geomorphic complexity in recently formed streams in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. River Res. Appl. 25, 1331–1338 (2010).

  7. 7.

    , , & Mechanisms of succession following deglaciation at Glacier Bay, Alaska. Ecol. Monogr. 64, 149–175 (1994).

  8. 8.

    , , & Chemical and biological trends during lake evolution in recently deglaciated terrain. Nature 408, 161–166 (2000).

  9. 9.

    & Rapid loss of glacial ice reveals stream community assembly processes. Glob. Change Biol. 18, 2195–2204 (2012).

  10. 10.

    et al. Climate, hydrologic disturbance, and succession: Drivers of floodplain pattern. Ecology 88, 940–953 (2007).

  11. 11.

    & Basic principles and ecological consequences of altered flow regimes and aquatic biodiversity. Environ. Manage. 30, 492–507 (2002).

  12. 12.

    , & Evolutionary history of Pacific salmon in dynamic environments. Evolut. Applic. 1, 189–206 (2008).

  13. 13.

    , & Species traits in relation to temporal and spatial heterogeneity in streams: A test of habitat template theory. Freshwat. Biol. 37, 367–387 (1997).

  14. 14.

    , , , & Colonization and development of a stream community over 28 years; Wolf Point Creek in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Front. Ecol. Environ. 6, 413–419 (2008).

  15. 15.

    & The role of competition in invertebrate community development in a recently formed stream in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Aquat. Ecol. 33, 175–184 (1995).

  16. 16.

    , , & Temporal succession in a desert stream ecosystem following flash flooding. Ecol. Monogr. 52, 93–110 (1982).

  17. 17.

    et al. Overview of case studies on recovery of aquatic systems from disturbance. Environ. Manage. 14, 571–587 (1990).

  18. 18.

    & The influence of stream age and environmental variables on structuring meiofaunal communities in recently deglaciated streams. Limnol. Oceanogr. 51, 1454–1465 (2006).

  19. 19.

    Lotic meiofaunal community dynamics: Colonization, resilience and persistence in a spatially and temporally heterogeneous environment. Freshwat. Biol. 44, 135–147 (2000).

  20. 20.

    , , & Movements and mortality of adult brown trout in the Motupiko River, New Zealand: Effects of water temperature, flow and flooding. Trans. Am. Fish Soc. 139, 137–146 (2010).

  21. 21.

    & Effects of floods on brook trout populations in the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Trans. Am. Fish Soc. 132, 1014–1020 (2003).

  22. 22.

    , & Influence of habitat complexity on resistance to flooding and resilience of stream fish assemblages. Trans. Am. Fish Soc. 121, 427–436 (1992).

  23. 23.

    Incorporating catastrophic risk assessments into setting conservation goals for threatened Pacific Salmon. Ecol. Appl. 18, 246–257 (2008).

  24. 24.

    & Effects of hydrologic regime on magnitude and frequency of dominant discharge. J. Hydrol. 29, 51–75 (1976).

  25. 25.

    & An Introduction to the Aquatic Insects of North America 2nd edn (Kendall Hunt Pub. Co., 1988).

  26. 26.

    et al. Colonization and development of stream communities across a 220-year gradient in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, U.S.A. Can. J. Fish Aquat. Sci. 57, 2319–2335 (2000).

  27. 27.

    Thorp, J. H. & Covich, A. P. (eds) Ecology and Classification of North American Freshwater Invertebrates (Academic, 1994).

  28. 28.

    Pennak’s Freshwater Invertebrates of the United States: Porifera to Crustacea 4th edn (Wiley, 2001).

  29. 29.

    , & PAST: paleontological statistics software package for education and data analysis. Palaeontol. Electron. 4, 4–9 (2001).

Download references


We thank those who have carried out research at WPC for long field seasons over the 34 years to develop the long-term record, including S. Conn, E. Flory, K. Monaghan, I. Phillips and A. Veal. We are grateful to Captain J. Luthy, of the MV Nunatak, who for many years supplied our remote field camp in Goose Cove and latterly to Captain J. Smith of the MV Capelin, who facilitated access to the stream. We are grateful to numerous others in the National Park Service, not mentioned above, for other logistic and field support. We are especially grateful to D. Lawson for supplying the rainfall data for the flood period and to R. Weingartner and G. Felder for constructing the rainfall intensity figure. Research has been supported by financial support from various bodies including NERC (GR9/2913, NE/E003729/1, NE/E004539/1 and NE/E004148/1), the Royal Society and the universities of Birmingham, Leeds and Roehampton. M.J.K was financially supported by a joint University of Birmingham/University of Worcester PhD scholarship.

Author information


  1. School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK

    • Alexander M. Milner
    •  & Megan J. Klaar
  2. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • Alexander M. Milner
  3. Department of Life Sciences, University of Roehampton, London SW15 4JD, UK

    • Anne L. Robertson
    •  & Michael J. McDermott
  4. School of Geography/water@leeds, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • Lee E. Brown


  1. Search for Alexander M. Milner in:

  2. Search for Anne L. Robertson in:

  3. Search for Michael J. McDermott in:

  4. Search for Megan J. Klaar in:

  5. Search for Lee E. Brown in:


A.M.M. initiated the study of WPC and collected many of the pre-flood samples. A.M.M., A.L.R. and L.E.B. were responsible for the funding application to study the post-flood ecosystem, research design and planning, data collection and analysis, and writing the manuscript. M.J.M. assisted with the field work and analysed the post-flood samples in the laboratory. M.J.K. undertook fieldwork, analysed the channel profile data and assisted with writing the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alexander M. Milner.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading