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Impacts of multiple stressors on freshwater biota across spatial scales and ecosystems


Climate and land-use change drive a suite of stressors that shape ecosystems and interact to yield complex ecological responses (that is, additive, antagonistic and synergistic effects). We know little about the spatial scales relevant for the outcomes of such interactions and little about effect sizes. These knowledge gaps need to be filled to underpin future land management decisions or climate mitigation interventions for protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems. This study combines data across scales from 33 mesocosm experiments with those from 14 river basins and 22 cross-basin studies in Europe, producing 174 combinations of paired-stressor effects on a biological response variable. Generalized linear models showed that only one of the two stressors had a significant effect in 39% of the analysed cases, 28% of the paired-stressor combinations resulted in additive effects and 33% resulted in interactive (antagonistic, synergistic, opposing or reversal) effects. For lakes, the frequencies of additive and interactive effects were similar for all spatial scales addressed, while for rivers these frequencies increased with scale. Nutrient enrichment was the overriding stressor for lakes, with effects generally exceeding those of secondary stressors. For rivers, the effects of nutrient enrichment were dependent on the specific stressor combination and biological response variable. These results vindicate the traditional focus of lake restoration and management on nutrient stress, while highlighting that river management requires more bespoke management solutions.

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Fig. 1: Location of the sampling sites and experimental sites.
Fig. 2: Stressor effect types in lakes and rivers.
Fig. 3: Explanatory power of models at different spatial scales and in different ecosystems.
Fig. 4: %AES for stressors across case studies.

Data availability

The data on the regression model outputs and the underlying paired-stressor response data are available at GitHub:

Code availability

The R script is available at GitHub:


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This work was supported by the MARS project (Managing Aquatic Ecosystems and Water Resources under Multiple Stress) funded under the 7th EU Framework Programme, Theme 6 (Environment including Climate Change), contract no. 603378 ( Further support was received through the ILES (SAW-2015-IGB-1) and BIBS (BMBF 01LC1501G) projects. Partner organizations provided 25% cofunding through their institutional budgets. We thank J. Strackbein, J. Lorenz and L. Mack for their support.

Author information




D.C., L.C., B.M.S., S.B., L.B., S.J.T. and D.H. conceptualized the study. D.C. and S.B. curated the data. D.H., L.C. and S.B. acquired the funding and administered the project. A.B., A.G., A.S., B.M.S., C.A., C.G.-C., C.P., D.d.Z., D.G., E.B.-K., F.C., G.P., J.J.R., J.R., J.T., J.U.L., K.R., K.S., L.P., L.S., M.C.U., M.J., N.K., N.W., P.B., P.S., P.C.v.d.O., R.B.S., R.-M.C., R.S., S.A., S.B., S.C.S., S.J.M., S.L., S.P., S.J.T., T.B., U.I. and U.M. provided the data and/or conducted the formal analysis. A.B.-P., A.L.S., D.G., E.B.-K., E.J., H.F., J.M.S., J.R., L.C., L.S., M.O.G., P.B., S.A., S.C.S., S.S. and W.G. conducted the experimental investigations. S.B., D.H., B.M.S., M.O.G. and D.C. wrote the manuscript. H.E.A., M.B., A.D.B., A.C.C., C.K.F., M.T.F., M.O.G., L.G., J.H., M.K., P.N., T.N., S.J.O., Y.P., B.S., M.V. and the aforementioned authors reviewed the manuscript and provided the necessary amendments.

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Correspondence to Sebastian Birk.

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Birk, S., Chapman, D., Carvalho, L. et al. Impacts of multiple stressors on freshwater biota across spatial scales and ecosystems. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1060–1068 (2020).

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