Effects of increased flooding on riparian vegetation: Field experiments simulating climate change along five European lowland streams

Annemarie G. Garssen*, Annette Baattrup-Pedersen, Tenna Riis, Bart M. Raven, Carl Christian Hoffman, Jos Verhoeven, Merel B. Soons

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In many parts of the world, the magnitude and frequency of cold-season precipitation are expected to increase in the near future. This will result in an increased magnitude and duration of winter and spring flooding by rain-fed streams and rivers. Such climate-driven increases in flooding are likely to affect riparian plant communities, but future vegetation changes are hard to predict due to current lack of data. To fill this knowledge gap, we experimentally modified the hydrology of five streams across three countries in north-western Europe during late winter/early spring over a period of 3 years. We assessed the responses in riparian plant species richness, biomass, plant-available nitrogen and phosphorus and seed deposition to increased flooding depth (+18 cm on average at the lowest positions along the riparian gradient) and prolonged flooding duration (6 weeks on average). After 3 years of increased flooding, there was an overall decline in riparian species richness, while riparian plant biomass increased. Extractable soil nitrogen and phosphorus also increased and are likely to have contributed to the increased biomass. Increased flooding resulted in the arrival of more seeds of additional species to the riparian zone, thereby potentially facilitating the shifts in riparian plant species composition we observed. The results of our concerted experimental effort demonstrate that changes in stream riparian plant communities can occur rapidly following increased winter flooding, leading to strong reductions in plant species diversity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3052-3063
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • biodiversity
  • floods
  • global change
  • hydrological changes
  • nutrient availability
  • plant species composition
  • riparian zone
  • seed deposition
  • stream riparian gradient
  • wetlands


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