Rising surface water temperatures in fluvial systems increasingly affect biodiversity negatively in riverine ecosystems, and a more frequent exceedance of thermal tolerance levels of species is expected to impoverish local species assemblages. Reliable prediction of the effect of increasing water temperature on habitat suitability requires detailed temperature measurements over time. We assessed (1) the accuracy of high-resolution images of water temperature of a side channel in a river floodplain acquired using a consumer-grade thermal camera mounted on an unmanned airborne vehicle (UAV), and (2) the associated habitat suitability for native and alien fish assemblages. Water surface temperatures were mapped four times throughout a hot summer day and calibrated with 24 in-situ temperature loggers in the water at 0.1 m below the surface using linear regression. The calibrated thermal imagery was used to calculate the potentially occurring fraction (POF) of freshwater fish using species sensitivity distributions. We found high temperatures (25–30 °C) in the side channel during mid-day resulting in reduced habitat suitability. The accuracy of water temperature estimates based on the RMSE was 0.53 °C over all flights (R2
= 0.94). Average daily POF was 0.51 and 0.64 for native and alien fish species in the side channel. The error of the POF estimates is 76% lower when water temperature is estimated with thermal UAV imagery compared to temperatures measured at an upstream gauging station. Accurately quantifying water temperature and the heterogeneity thereof is a critical step in adaptation of riverine ecosystems to climate change. Our results show that measurements of surface water temperature can be made accurately and easily using thermal imagery from UAVs allowing for an improved habitat management, but coincident collection of long wave radiation is needed for a more physically-based prediction of water temperature. Because of climate change, management of riverine ecosystems should consider thermal pollution control and facilitate cold water refugia and connectivity between waterbodies in floodplains and the cooler main channel for fish migration during extremely hot summer periods.
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