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Natural vs anthropogenic streams in Europe: History, ecology and implications for restoration, river-rewilding and riverine ecosystem services

Abstract : In Europe and North America the prevailing model of “natural” lowland streams is incised-meandering channels with silt-clay floodplains, and this is the typical template for stream restoration. Using both published and new unpublished geological and historical data from Europe we critically review this model, show how it is inappropriate for the European context, and examine the implications for carbon sequestration and Riverine Ecosystem Services (RES) including river rewilding. This paper brings together for the first time, all the pertinent strands of evidence we now have on the long-term trajectories of floodplain system from sediment-based dating to sedaDNA. Floodplain chronostratigraphy shows that early Holocene streams were predominantly multi-channel (anabranching) systems, often choked with vegetation and relatively rarely single-channel actively meandering systems. Floodplains were either non-existent or limited to adjacent organic-filled palaeochannels, spring/valley mires and flushes. This applied to many, if not most, small to medium rivers but also major sections of the larger rivers such as the Thames, Seine, Rhône, Lower Rhine, Vistula and Danube. As shown by radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating during the mid-late Holocene c. 4–2 ka BP, overbank silt-clay deposition transformed European floodplains, covering former wetlands and silting-up secondary channels. This was followed by direct intervention in the Medieval period incorporating weir and mill-based systems – part of a deep engagement with rivers and floodplains which is even reflected in river and floodplain settlement place names. The final transformation was the “industrialisation of channels” through hard-engineering – part of the Anthropocene great acceleration. The primary causative factor in transforming pristine floodplains was accelerated soil erosion caused by deforestation and arable farming, but with effective sediment delivery also reflecting climatic fluctuations. Later floodplain modifications built on these transformed floodplain topographies. So, unlike North America where channel-floodplain transformation was rapid, the transformation of European streams occurred over a much longer time-period with considerable spatial diversity regarding timing and kind of modification. This has had implications for the evolution of RES including reduced carbon sequestration over the past millennia. Due to the multi-faceted combination of catchment controls, ecological change and cultural legacy, it is impractical, if not impossible, to identify an originally natural condition and thus restore European rivers to their pre-transformation state (naturalisation). Nevertheless, attempts to restore to historical (pre-industrial) states allowing for natural floodplain processes can have both ecological and carbon offset benefits, as well as additional abiotic benefits such as flood attenuation and water quality improvements. This includes rewilding using beaver reintroduction which has overall positive benefits on river corridor ecology. New developments, particularly biomolecular methods offer the potential of unifying modern ecological monitoring with the reconstruction of past ecosystems and their trajectories. The sustainable restoration of rivers and floodplains designed to maximise desirable RES and natural capital must be predicated on the awareness that Anthropocene rivers are still largely imprisoned in the banks of their history and this requires acceptance of an increased complexity for the achievement and maintenance of desirable restoration goals.
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https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02377284
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Submitted on : Saturday, November 23, 2019 - 2:34:38 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, April 1, 2020 - 2:42:03 PM

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Antony G. Brown, Laurent Lespez, David A. Sear, Jean-Jacques Macaire, Peter Houben, et al.. Natural vs anthropogenic streams in Europe: History, ecology and implications for restoration, river-rewilding and riverine ecosystem services. Earth-Science Reviews, Elsevier, 2018, 180, pp.185--205. ⟨10.1016/j.earscirev.2018.02.001⟩. ⟨hal-02377284⟩

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