Study Finds Beavers Are Protecting Colorado Rivers Threatened By Climate Change

Climate change has been at the forefront of our minds, as conservationists and scientists sound the alarm about its detrimental effects.

One huge issue about climate change is the impact it can have on water sources. We all need water to survive and it seems that the humble beaver might be able to protect some water sources from climate change.

Photo: flickr/Larry Lamsa

Researchers from Stanford conducted a study that found beavers thrive in the conditions presented by climate change.

According to a press release, researchers found that “although hotter, arid conditions wrought by climate change will lessen water quality, these same conditions have also contributed to a resurgence of the American beaver in the western United States, and consequently an explosion of dam building.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, beaver dams are helping to protect rivers that are threatened by climate change. As the press release notes, beaver dams help raise water levels upstream, which pushes water into surrounding soils and secondary waterways known as riparian zones.

Riparian zones work as filters of sorts, straining out excess nutrients and contaminants before allowing the water to enter the main channel and continue downstream.

In the press release, senior author Professor Scott Fendorf said: “As we’re getting drier and warmer in the mountain watersheds in the American West, that should lead to water quality degradation. Yet unbeknownst to us prior to this study, the outsized influence of beaver activity on water quality is a positive counter to climate change.”

Photo: flickr/ramendan

The study, “Beaver dams overshadow climate extremes in controlling riparian hydrology and water quality,” was published in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers monitored a 40-kilometer stretch of the East River in Central Colorado. They looked at data on water levels, collected water samples, and compared water quality during a historically dry year and a year with unusually high water levels.

The study found that dams increased nitrate removal by nearly 50%. The decrease in nitrates helped increase oxygen content and quality for aquatic life.

Photo: flickr/yrjö jyske

In the press release, Professor Fendorf added:

“Beavers are countering water quality degradation and improving water quality by producing simulated hydrological extremes that dwarf what the climate is doing. We would expect climate change to induce hydrological extremes and degradation of water quality during drought periods.bIn this study, we’re seeing that would have indeed been true if it weren’t for this other ecological change taking place, which is the beavers, their proliferating dams, and their growing populations.”

Photo: flickr/Grand Teton

With so much doom and gloom talk surrounding climate change, it’s nice to hear how beavers are naturally combating such a serious issue!

You can read the full study here.

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