Global thermal pollution of rivers from thermoelectric power plants

C. E. Raptis, M.T.H. Van Vliet, S. Pfister

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Worldwide riverine thermal pollution patterns were investigated by combining mean annual heat rejection rates from power plants with once-through cooling systems with the global hydrological-water temperature model variable infiltration capacity (VIC)-RBM. The model simulates both streamflow and water temperature on 0.5° ×0.5° spatial resolution worldwide and by capturing their effect, identifies multiple thermal pollution hotspots. The Mississippi receives the highest total amount of heat emissions (62% and 28% of which come from coal-fuelled and nuclear power plants, respectively) and presents the highest number of instances where the commonly set 3 °C temperature increase limit is equalled or exceeded. The Rhine receives 20% of the thermal emissions compared to the Mississippi (predominantly due to nuclear power plants), but is the thermally most polluted basin in relation to the total flow per watershed, with one third of its total flow experiencing a temperature increase ≥5 °C on average over the year. In other smaller basins in Europe, such as the Weser and the Po, the share of the total streamflow with a temperature increase ≥3 °C goes up to 49% and 81%, respectively, during July-September. As the first global analysis of its kind, this work points towards areas of high riverine thermal pollution, where temporally finer thermal emission data could be coupled with a spatially finer model to better investigate water temperature increase and its effect on aquatic ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104011
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • electricity generation
  • global
  • grid-based
  • heat emissions
  • once-through cooling
  • water temperature increase
  • water temperature model


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