Cumulative impacts of multiple stressors: improving temporal and biological realism

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Zoology


In our changing world there is an increasing urgency to understand interactions among multiple environmental stressors, such as pollution and warming. Much of the concern surrounding multiple stressors is due to their potential to interact, creating more severe impacts than they would do independently. Freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable and freshwater biodiversity is the most threatened across the globe: a recent report estimated average population declines of >80% among freshwater vertebrate species compared to <40% in terrestrial and marine species (since 1970; WWF Living Planet Report, 2018). Although the combined impacts of multiple stressors has started to receive more attention, our knowledge on their interactive effects still remains almost non-existent.

In reality, stressors are unlikely to occur in the same space at exactly the same time, yet studies that measure the combined effects of multiple stressors often assume this to be the case. In other words, they lack temporal realism. Most of these studies also lack biological realism by quantifying the effects of stressors on model species at lower levels of organisation (e.g. range shifts, survival, abundance) and ignoring feeding interactions. Here, we will consider how the order, or sequence, of stressor events alters individual-to-ecosystem responses of freshwaters, with a focus on food web interactions. Ecosystems will have multiple responses to the multiple stressors they face, including changes in diversity, abundance, body size and feeding behaviour. Even minor alterations to any of these can shift food web structure, with implications for the effects of future stressors, yet these critically important interactions have been largely ignored to date. This leaves us with little or no predictive ability about the consequences of future change in natural systems. Therefore, here we will use mesocosm experiments to quantify the combined effects of staggered nutrient pollution and warming events (i.e. previous exposure) on freshwater ecosystems, and scale our results up to the catchment level by adapting a suite of dynamic water quality models. Our experimental results will be used to parameterize temperature and nutrient controlled population sizes and growth rates, and to simulate how these changed rates will alter food web structure at the larger river system scale.

This interdisciplinary study will generate an unprecedented breadth and depth of data: from individual changes in fitness and population shifts in size structure to food web complexity. We will show how the order of multiple stressor events (i.e. previous exposure) affects community resistance and resilience to change. These unique data sets will allow us to ask numerous novel questions in pure and applied ecology, and to characterise the little known multiple impacts of multiple stressors on freshwater food webs. Such a comprehensive coverage of responses has never been attempted before and this study will address this glaring gap in our knowledge of stressor impacts.

Planned Impact

The proposed project has the potential to have huge impacts on both the academic (see Academic Beneficiaries) and non- academic communities. Here we address non-academic beneficiaries while the approaches we will take to maximise the likelihood of the identified benefits being achieved is in the Pathways to Impact attachment.

Non-academic beneficiaries:

The long-term impacts of pollution and warming, which can be both direct and indirect, are poorly understood in natural systems, especially when they interact in complex ways in time and space. In particular, the interactive effect of two or more stressors on biodiversity and economically valuable ecosystem services (water purification; productivity; iconic species) remains unknown. Our research addresses this major knowledge gap and will have implications for policy and management through both national and international legislative bodies, so it will be of significant benefit to many stakeholders. The research will help prioritise management and regulation of stressors with direct application for conservation managers and governmental bodies both in the UK and on a more global scale.

The main beneficiaries of this research among the stakeholder communities include the major UK environmental/conservation agencies (Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Environment Agency (EA), Natural England (NE), Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS)), for whom understanding, predicting and mitigating the impacts of stressors in natural ecosystems is an essential remit. These agencies will benefit from our data, especially as we will be measuring responses of whole food webs and ecosystem processes, which will complement their traditional structural metrics focused on taxonomy. Other beneficiaries include commercial bodies (e.g., Thames Water; Wessex Water, Cambridge Environmental Assesements) who will benefit from the new framework we will develop to assess stressor impacts, such as those that are linked to statutory requirements they must meet. Our work will also benefit conservation bodies and learned societies who we are actively engaged with, including those with a freshwater focus (e.g., Freshwater Habitats Trust; Freshwater Biological Association; British Ecological Society) and those with a wider remit (e.g., EarthWatch, World Wildlife Fund for Nature). Although our research is focused in freshwater ecosystems, many insects rely on these as larvae and so the research will also have implications for terrestrial ecosystem management.

Through the proposed stakeholder and public engagement events (see Pathways to Impact), we will engage with all of these groups to bridge the science-policy gap and promote conservation of freshwater ecosystems.


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Description Evidence to parliament
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact In its 25 Year Environment Plan the Government promised to deliver cleaner inland water to protect biodiversity and human health. This aim is threatened by multiple anthropogenic stressors, including agricultural pollution, sewage and wastewater, and run-off from urban areas. This enquiry looked into the sources of pollution, potential solutions, and suggested policy changes. The aim is to improve water quality to allow safe human use of this resource for recreation.
Description Wessex Water Sewage Impacts - Multiple Stressors 
Organisation Wessex Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Our NERC grant has lead to a strong collaboration with Wessex Water. We are working together to determine the impact of wastewater and other stressors on river communities.
Collaborator Contribution Wessex Water have provided site access, funding, and intellectual input to this project.
Impact In prep
Start Year 2021