Loving the low flows …

It is a long time since we have had a heatwave in the UK that has lasted as long as the present one.  The last that compares was in 1995, when the A1 near my house was busy with tankers ferrying water from Kielder Water in Northumberland to the drought-afflicted areas of Yorkshire.   Three weeks in and gardeners are staring anxiously at the parched soil and quietly praying for rain whilst, at the same time, trying to make the most of the rare luxury of warm weather.   Rivers, too, are showing the effects of the weather.  In some parts of the country, rivers are drying out and fish stocks are threatened.   That is not the case here in the north-east, but the River Wear is showing some signs.

The medieval Prebends Bridge is one of the most picturesque sights in Durham but, at the moment, the water underneath the bridge – and, indeed, throughout Durham – is bright green with flocs of algae.   Closer inspection showed this to be fronds of Ulva flexuosa: the cells are arranged to form a hollow tube, like a sausage skin, which traps the oxygen released by photosynthesis to give the alga an integral buoyancy aid.  You can see how this clearly in the image below. The common name for this alga is “gutweed”, which offers us another metaphor for the appearance of these semi-inflated sacs of cells.   This broad thallus is loosely attached to the river bed (see lower picture below) but is easily dislodged, after which the thalli drift downstream until they become entangled in other water plants or submerged branches.  In the current state, Durham’s rowers are grumbling that it is becoming entangled with their oars

We often see a little Ulva flexuosa in the Wear during the summer, but rarely as much as this.  It is a species that thrives under still, warm conditions and which also benefits from the weirs which regulate the flow of the river in Durham.   It is an alga that we tend to associate with nutrient-rich conditions, but this might be because the type of slow-flowing lowland rivers where it can become common are more likely to be nutrient rich than faster-flowing upland rivers where it is rarely found.   The current weather, in other words, creates the “perfect storm” for Ulva flexuosa.   Ironically, a storm – perfect or otherwise – will probably alter the flow regime in the Wear enough to flush it all downstream.  Another curiosity is that, despite being favoured by low flows and the near-standing water behind the weirs in Durham, Ulva flexuosa seems to be more likely to form mass growths in rivers rather than in lakes or ponds.

Ulva flexuosa in the River Wear, July 2018: the upper picture shows free-floating thalli, inflated by oxygen released by photosynthesis; the lower photograph shows thalli still attached to the river bed.

In my experience, the genus Ulva tends to be absent from nutrient-poor conditions which is subtly different to saying that it thrives when nutrients are abundant.  There are other factors – warm, stable conditions in particular that determine the success of the genus in any particular place.  The Wear has seen a significant decrease in nutrients in recent years yet here we are, in 2018, with a river full of Ulva.   I could say that, despite this reduction in nutrients, the Wear is still, relatively speaking, nutrient-rich, but the coincidence with an altered flow regime, a prolonged spell of warm weather and low flow conditions seems too great to ignore.   Ulva flexuosa is, in other words, a fine example of an alga where we need to think of a multifactorial “habitat template” rather than just in terms of single stressors.   We also need to think in terms of probabilities of mass proliferations increasing or decreasing as habitat factors vary, rather than a simple likelihood of finding Ulva at any particular location.

That means we need to look at climate change forecasts and, if there is a likelihood of more long, warm, dry summers, then we should expect more frequent blooms of Ulva in our rivers.  We may tinker with nutrient concentrations and even try to restore more natural flows (though Durham’s rowers will have a view if that was tried here!) but, ultimately, Ulva flexuosa is a species that enjoys a heatwave as much as any other resident of these islands.

A high magnification (x 400) view of the thallus of Ulva flexuosa from the River Wear.   Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/50th of a millimetre).

Reference

Rybak, A.S. & Gąbka, M. (2017).  The influence of abiotic factors on the bloom-forming alga Ulva flexuosa (Ulvaceae, Chlorophyta): possibilities for the control of the green tides in freshwater ecosystems.  Journal of Applied Phycology https://doi.org/10.1007/s10811-017-1301-5

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