Royal Society Publishing

Global analysis of river systems: from Earth system controls to Anthropocene syndromes

Michel Meybeck


Continental aquatic systems from rivers to the coastal zone are considered within two perspectives: (i) as a major link between the atmosphere, pedosphere, biosphere and oceans within the Earth system with its Holocene dynamics, and (ii) as water and aquatic biota resources progressively used and transformed by humans. Human pressures have now reached a state where the continental aquatic systems can no longer be considered as being controlled by only Earth system processes, thus defining a new era, the Anthropocene. Riverine changes, now observed at the global scale, are described through a first set of syndromes (flood regulation, fragmentation, sediment imbalance, neo–arheism, salinization, chemical contamination, acidification, eutrophication and microbial contamination) with their related causes and symptoms. These syndromes have direct influences on water uses, either positive or negative. They also modify some Earth system key functions such as sediment, water, nutrient and carbon balances, greenhouse gas emissions and aquatic biodiversity. Evolution of river syndromes over the past 2000 years is complex: it depends upon the stages of regional human development and on natural conditions, as illustrated here for the chemical contamination syndrome. River damming, eutrophication and generalized decrease of river flow due to irrigation are some of the other global features of river changes. Future management of river systems should also consider these long–term impacts on the Earth system.