Lakes can form in many ways, but most in the Northern Hemisphere fill the impressions left by glaciers 18,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. The Great Lakes, which form the world’s largest fresh water system, were created this way. They are open lakes, like all other freshwater lakes, meaning that the water leaves the lake by a river or other outlet. Closed lakes become saline like the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake (located in the northern part of Utah and the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere). Only about 0.3% of the Earth’s fresh water is found in the surface water of lakes, rivers, and swamps (with over 68% in ice caps and glaciers and over 30% in ground water).

Lakes and rivers are a vital resource and part of critical ecosystems, but they too are being negatively impacted by climate change. As average temperatures rise globally, so do their temperatures, making them increasingly uninhabitable for cold water species. A warmer upper layer also creates dead zones, because it slows down air exchange and leads to less oxygen in the water. Dead zones can produce toxic algae, foul drinking water, and massive fish kills. Altered streamflow, whether it increases during heavy rains or decreases in drought, is threatening to fish populations, most of which can only survive within a range of conditions.

Many communities will see their food, water, and economic resources destabilized as river flows change dramatically. Globally, river flooding is expected to displace 50 million people a year by 2100. In the US, the average 100-year floodplain is projected to increase 45 percent by the year 2100, while the annual damages from flooding are predicted to increase by $750 million. By reducing stormwater runoff and protecting floodplains, green infrastructure can help manage both localized and riverine floods. In areas impacted by localized flooding, green infrastructure practices absorb rainfall, preventing water from overwhelming pipe networks and pooling in streets or basements. Green infrastructure practices that enhance infiltration include rain gardens, bioswales, and permeable pavements. In areas impacted by riverine flooding, green infrastructure, open space preservation, and floodplain management can all complement gray infrastructure approaches. These practices reduce the volume of stormwater that flows into streams and rivers, protecting the natural function of floodplains, and reducing the damage to infrastructure and property.

Warmer weather will mean more evaporation from reservoirs and lakes causing increased precipitation in other areas. The Colorado River, for example, already loses 1.8 million acre-feet of water to evaporation every year, which is about 13% of its flow.

Not only are rivers’ flows changing dramatically in volume, their actual routes are shifting as a result of climate change. Scientists have dubbed this phenomenon “river piracy”, which refers to one river capturing and redirecting the flow of another. This process would usually take thousands of years, but it happened to the Yukon River (close to 2,000 miles long) over the course of a few months in 2016. While that event was particularly dramatic, scientists predict that such remapping of river routes will become more common as glaciers continue to melt.

Like all other parts of the natural world, climate change will affect rivers and lakes from the micro to the macro levels, destabilizing the plethora of life forms that rely on their once-consistent patterns.



Colorado River: Serving as the “lifeline of the Southwest”

Serving as the “lifeline of the Southwest,” and one of the most heavily regulated rivers in the world, the Colorado River provides water to 35 million people and more than 4 million acres of farmland…

Climate Change Indicators: Great Lakes Water Levels and Temperatures

This indicator measures water levels and surface water temperatures in the Great Lakes

In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts

With climate change and long-term drought continuing to take a toll on the Colorado River, the federal government on Monday for the first time declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the river’s…

NOAA Reserve Hosts First-Ever Carbon-Offset Initiative by U.S. Pro Football Team

The Takeaway: The Philadelphia Eagles football team will expand mangrove and seagrass restoration efforts at Puerto Rico’s Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in order to offset travel-related emissions, in a partnership with the Ocean…

Climate Hot Map Global: Warming Effects Around the World

Climate change is already beginning to affect plants and animals that live in freshwater lakes and rivers, altering their habitat and bringing life-threatening stress and disease.

Climate Implications – Lakes, Rivers and Streams

Climate changes such as rising temperatures, more frequent extreme storms and changes in season preciptation rates will impact lakes, rivers and streams.

Humans a more immediate threat to large river systems than climate change

Climate change promises to disrupt a variety of natural systems across the globe, but new research suggests human activities pose a more immediate threat to the planet's largest river systems.

Climate change is slowly drying up the Colorado River

Climate change is threatening to dry up the Colorado River — jeopardizing a water supply that serves some 40 million people from Denver to Phoenix to Las Vegas and irrigates farmlands across the U.S. Southwest.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Rivers

Water resources in the u.S. Face a range of threats in a warming climate.

Human activity on rivers outpaces, compounds effects of climate change

The livelihoods of millions of people living along the world's biggest river systems are under threat by a range of stressors caused by the daily economic, societal and political activity of humans -- in addition…

When it Comes to Water, You Have to Think Global

While Earth is so wet that it looks blue from space, most of that water is saltwater. Only 2.5% of water on Earth is fresh water, and nearly all of that water is frozen—locked up…

Climate Change & Water Use

Water supply disruptions will particularly affect the nation’s agriculture and energy sectors. That’s because these groups account for three-fourths of U.S. water use, according to the USGS National Water Census. Irrigation is the thirstiest sector…

Water and climate change

There is much at stake. The World Economic Forum ranked water crises as number one in its 2015 assessment of global risks, with potential to cause damaging economic and social impacts across entire countries and…

How Climate Change Impacts Our Water

Climate change impacts the world’s water in complex ways. Consider a water cycle diagram, like the one below; global warming is altering nearly every stage in the diagram. These changes will put pressure on drinking…

Water and Climate Change

In some regions, droughts are exacerbating water scarcity and thereby negatively impacting people’s health and productivity. Ensuring that everyone has access to sustainable water and sanitation services is a critical climate change mitigation strategy for…

Water and Climate Change

Water in its various forms is always on the move, in a complex process known as the water cycle. Global warming is already having a measurable effect on this cycle, altering the amount, distribution, timing,…

Climate Ready Estuaries

The Climate Ready Estuaries program works with the National Estuary Programs and the coastal management community to:


When the water rises

By Carol Kaufmann   10/20/22  
A wildlife refuge along the Chesapeake Bay offers a “fast-motion” view of the effects of climate change and rising waters along the nation’s coastlines.

Mississippi River Basin adapts as climate change brings extreme rain and flooding

By Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco   10/18/22  
After a torrential downpour began on Aug. 7, the Pecatonica River jumped its banks in Freeport, Ill. and flooded the basement of Laurie Thomas' family home, nearly to the ceiling. This latest was Freeport's fifth…

Lake Mead water crisis is exposing volcanic rock from eruptions 12 million years ago

By Rachel Ramirez   10/12/22  
Lake Mead’s falling water level has exposed several shocking things in recent months – previously sunken boats, old war ships and human remains. Now scientists are reporting a new discovery on Lake Mead’s dry bed:…

Wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests

Wetlands are home to indigenous peoples and a natural source of livelihoods for their communities. They provide drinking water, energy, fisheries, agriculture, transport, recreation, cultural values and tourism. While human-made wetlands – largely rice paddy…

Mississippi River levels are dropping too low for barges to float

By Scott Dance   10/12/22  
The Mississippi River is flowing at its lowest level in at least a decade, and until rain relieves a worsening drought in the region, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain water levels high enough to…

The drying of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers

By Sueellen Campbell   09/22/22  
National TV, cable, and other mass media outlets have been brimming with news that much of the American West is into its longest drought in 1,200 years. What does this mean for some of the…

A Painful Deadline Nears as Colorado River Reservoirs Run Critically Low

By Henry Fountain   07/21/22  
States in the Colorado River basin are scrambling to propose steep cuts in the water they’ll use from the river next year, in response to a call by the federal government for immediate, drastic efforts…

Coastal Changes May Lead to a Greater Release, not Storage, of Carbon

By Climate Adaptation Science Centers   07/06/22  
Coastal marshes and wetlands are usually considered to be carbon sinks, meaning they trap and store carbon underwater, underground, and in vegetation, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. However, as…

These five people could make or break the Colorado River

By Sammy Roth   06/16/22  
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of them. But with the Colorado River in crisis, they’re arguably five of the most powerful people in the American West.

Virginia could lose 42 percent of its tidal wetlands by 2100 due to sea level rise, study finds

By Alejandra O' Connell - Domenech   06/13/22  
Tidal wetlands provide numerous environmental benefits like providing a habitat for fisheries, capturing and storing carbon dioxide and acting as a defense against coastal storms and erosion. But many tidal wetlands are at risk of…

1 Million Acres of Southeast Salt Marsh Move Closer to Protection

By Joseph Gordon   06/09/22  
The project, known as the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, launched in May 2021 to conserve a coastal area nearly the size of Grand Canyon National Park that stretches from North Carolina to northeast Florida.…

Opportunity to Gain 20,000 Protected Coastal Acres

Following years of study and public input, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending that Congress add more than 277,000 acres to the CBRA system in nine states most affected by Hurricane Sandy (including…

The Vanishing Rio Grande: Warming Takes a Toll on a Legendary River

By Jim Robbins   06/02/22  
Hiking through the emerald green canopy of the bosque, or riverside cottonwood forest, near downtown Albuquerque, Tricia Snyder, an advocate for WildEarth Guardians, believes zero hour has arrived for the Rio Grande. Though the river…

The quest to keep carbon in North Carolina’s wetlands

By Brady Dennis   05/31/22  
George Washington himself aspired to drain this sprawling wetland that straddles the border of North Carolina and Virginia — one in a long line of investors eager to carve out farmland, harvest stands of Atlantic…

Army Corps of Engineers project aims to protect low-lying marsh

By YCC Team   05/26/22  
As sea levels rise and storms become more extreme, seawater is increasingly inundating coastal marshes. That can disrupt the ecosystem. And over time, some low-lying marshes may end up completely underwater.

The Wetlands Are Drowning

By Gregory Barber   05/23/22  
Like all plants, the bulrush requires oxygen to produce energy. One solution is obvious: Send shoots skyward like straws to suck down oxygen to the roots. But the bulrush also employs a more unusual strategy:…

The Colorado River is in crisis, and it’s getting worse every day

By Erin Patrick O'Connor   05/14/22  
It is a powerhouse: a 1,450-mile waterway that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez, serving 40 million people in seven U.S. states, 30 federally recognized tribes and Mexico. It hydrates 5…

The swift march of climate change in North Carolina’s ‘ghost forests’

By Brady Dennis   05/12/22  
As the first light of day flickers across the Croatan Sound, Scott Lanier surveys the gray, barren tree trunks that stand in every direction, like massive gravestones marking the once-vibrant landscape.

Colorado River drought may be the ‘new normal’ and living with it will be costly, leaders say

By Brandon Loomis   05/07/22  
Arizona needs to rapidly invest in both water conservation and new supplies to offset losses from a shrinking Colorado River, the state’s top water officials warned Friday.

Wetland Wonders: Reforms Included in New York’s Budget Will Help Safeguard These Vital Areas

By Liz Galst   04/26/22  
On a farm in the Hudson Valley town of Hamptonburgh, Lisa Barone and her older cousins Morse and Kathi Pitts grow an astonishing 300 varieties of vegetables—eggplants, sweet peppers and a wide array of lettuces–on…

Carbon Captured by Coastal and Ocean Habitats Can Advance States’ Climate Goals

By Sylvia Troost   03/28/22  
Coastal wetlands support a huge range of life on Earth and provide the major benefit of capturing and storing carbon—so-called “blue carbon.” Conserving and restoring these ecosystems can contribute to broader efforts that combat climate…

Peat, kelp and trees: nature-based carbon capture

By Greg Dalton   03/04/22  
Many climate efforts focus on carbon capture from power plants and refineries – preventing emissions before they reach the atmosphere. But even if we dramatically reduce emissions in the years ahead, we still need to…

Colorado River, stolen by law

By Pauly Denetclaw   03/01/22  
Indigenous nations have been an afterthought in U.S. water policy for over a century. That was all part of the plan.

On the Great Lakes, scientists are making a ‘Winter Grab’ of rare data

By Susan Cosier   02/18/22  
On a brutally cold day here earlier this week, Kirill Shchapov stood 200 meters off the shore of Lake Michigan, using a green auger to drill into a glistening ice sheet that stretched to the…

NC’s salt marshes hold 64 million tons of carbon dioxide. What happens if they die?

By Adam Wagner   10/25/21  
On a recent weekend, a family went fishing feet away from a salt marsh in the northwest corner of Carolina Beach State Park, about 20 minutes south of downtown Wilmington.

Writer Delia Owens Discusses the Need to Conserve Salt Marsh

By Delia Owens   10/25/21  
Delia Owens knows a lot about salt marsh from her time spent studying zoology at the University of Georgia and her experience living in North Carolina. And she’s incorporated salt marsh as a central element…

Seafood, Seagrass, and Storms: North Carolina Plan Would Protect Coast—and Livelihoods

By Leda Cunningham   10/12/21  
Bordered in part by a thin chain of barrier islands—the Outer Banks—the sounds, shorelines, and marshes of North Carolina’s coast form one of the largest estuary systems in the country. The seagrass found in its…

Coastal ‘Blue Carbon’: An Important Tool for Combating Climate Change

By Stacy Baez   09/20/21  
Coastal wetlands, including salt marshes, mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows, are among the most productive—and threatened—ecosystems on the planet. They provide many benefits to people and nature, such as helping communities adapt to severe storms,…

These popular tuna species are no longer endangered, surprising scientists

By Jason Bittel   09/05/21  
In a world simultaneously on fire and underwater thanks to climate change, scientists have announced some good news: Several important tuna species have stepped back from the edge of extinction.

Water Crisis In The West, v5.0 — The Colorado River Story

By Arthur Keith   08/25/21  
Well, folks, it happened, but it comes as no surprise. The Federal Government has officially declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time in history.

The incredible shrinking Colorado River

By Jonathan Thompson   08/23/21  
One of the most visible signs of the state of the West’s water supply is the big bathtub ring around the sandstone rim of Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir. Whenever the massive hydrological system that…

Reservoirs are drying up as consequences of the Western drought worsen

By Diana Leonard and Others   07/09/21  
Reservoir levels are dropping throughout the West, as the drought tightens its grip on the region and intense summer heat further stresses both water supply and the surrounding landscape. Many reservoirs are at or approaching…

A Battle Between a Great City and a Great Lake

By Dan Egan   07/07/21  
In the search for ­­­­­a big-city refuge from climate change, Chicago looks like an excellent option. At least, it does on a map. It stands a half-continent away from the threat of surging ocean levels.…

A Deep Dive Into America’s Rivers

By Nicole Cordan   06/30/21  
Clean, free-flowing rivers and their associated tributaries and wetlands support diverse, complex, and dynamic ecosystems that deliver myriad important benefits to people, nature, and the economy. In addition to serving as a foundation for freshwater…

To Understand How Warming is Driving Harmful Algal Blooms, Look to Regional Patterns

By Haley Dunleavy   06/16/21  
Last month, a red tint began to spread across the surface of the glacial waters of Kachemak Bay, Alaska. It was a signal: another algal bloom had arrived.

Climate change: world’s lakes are in hot water – threatening rare wildlife

By Antonia Law   06/07/21  
The Earth’s surface is splotched with 117 million lakes. Some are scarcely more than ponds, while others are so big they can be seen from space. At 395 miles long, 49 miles wide and just…

Wildlife at risk as climate change starves lakes of oxygen

By Ben Webster   06/02/21  
Oxygen levels are declining rapidly in lakes in a trend driven largely by climate change that threatens trout and other freshwater wildlife as well as drinking water quality, a study has found.

Climate crisis is suffocating the world’s lakes, study finds

By Damian Carrington   06/02/21  
The climate crisis is causing a widespread fall in oxygen levels in lakes across the world, suffocating wildlife and threatening drinking water supplies. Falling levels of oxygen in oceans had already been identified, but new research…

Study: Wildfires threaten river networks in western U.S

A new study conducted by researchers from The University of New Mexico has found that wildfires — which have been increasing in frequency, severity and extent around the globe — are one of the largest…

Water levels drop in Great Lakes after record-breaking highs in 2020, years of steady increases

By Laura Schulte   05/17/21  
Visitors to the Great Lakes this summer might notice a few extra inches of dry sand at their favorite beaches, thanks to a drop in water levels in the lakes. New data from the U.S.…

Delaware River may be dumping more plastic into ocean than any other U.S. waterway

By Andrew S. Lewis   05/17/21  
Each year just over 283,000 pounds of plastic waste are carried by the Delaware River and ultimately dumped in the ocean. That puts the Delaware at the low end of the 1,656 rivers the authors…

Reduced fish abundance possible due to climate change warming deep waters in Lake Michigan

By Max White   05/10/21  
Climate change is warming Lake Michigan's surface, but also its deep waters, which could have a significant impact on the lake's ecosystem and mixing process. A long-term study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,…

Why Rivers Are The Key To Rapidly Stopping Plastic Pollution

By Boyan Slat   05/06/21  
Close to 700 marine species are now known to be harmed by plastic, of which more than 100 are endangered. Its economic impact on coastal communities is estimated to be up to 19 billion USD…

Ocean Plastic Pollution Flows From More Rivers Than Previously Thought

By Olivia Rosane   05/03/21  
A new study published in Science Advances Friday found that 80 percent of the plastic that enters the world's oceans via rivers comes from more than 1,000 waterways. That's as much as 100 times the…

Receding glaciers causing rivers to suddenly disappear

By Jenna Kunze   05/03/21  
As glaciers around the world recede rapidly owing to global warming, some communities are facing a new problem: the sudden disappearance of their rivers. River piracy, or stream capture, is when water from one river…

Along Southeast Coast, Plan to Protect 1 Million Acres of Salt Marsh Draws Broad Support

By Holly Binns and Joseph Gordon   04/28/21  
Salt marshes—sinewy channels of coastal grasslands—protect coastlines from flooding, erosion, and storm surge; filter upland runoff; and serve as vital habitat for fish, birds, and other animals. Recognizing that value to the ecosystem and coastal…

Endangered US rivers at grave risk from dams, mining and global heating

By Nina Lakhani   04/13/21  
Dams, mining, factory farms and global heating are among the gravest threats facing America’s endangered rivers, according to a new report.

One-Third of the World’s Freshwater Fish Face Extinction

By Mary Jo DiLonardo   03/01/21  
They may not get as many headlines as pandas, polar bears, and big cats, but freshwater fish deserve their moment in the spotlight, say conservationists. They’re critical for human survival, yet one-third of them are…

Fracking Banned in the Delaware River Basin

Marisa Guerrero Kimberly Ong   02/25/21  
In an historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission—the body responsible for safeguarding  the water quality of the Delaware River Basin—voted to outlaw fracking in the region. Four of the five Commissioners, including the governors…

NOAA projects 30-percent maximum Great Lakes ice cover for 2021 winter

NOAA scientists project the maximum Great Lakes ice cover for 2021 will be 30 percent, higher than last year’s maximum of 19.5 percent, but part of a long-term pattern of declining ice cover likely driven…