Making global river ecosystem health assessments objective, quantitative and comparable

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Journal Article
Science of the Total Environment, 2019, 667 pp. 500 - 510
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© 2019 Elsevier B.V. Assessing and comparing global river ecosystem health in an objective and quantitative way remains a major challenge. In this study the widely-used semi-quantitative methods Rapid Biological assessment Protocols (RBPs) was used to determine the health of rivers. The findings were then compared to the results derived from our new UAV (Unmanned aerial vehicles) orthophotographic imagery method. This method quantitatively and objectively assesses river ecosystem health. As a comparison, our method was used to quantitatively measure distance and areas of a range of hydrological and biological attributes thus improving the accuracy of distance- and area-related indices, consequently avoiding subjective errors in these estimations that is fraught in methods like the RBPs. To strengthen the objectivity of the assessment the weights of these indices were objectively determined using the entropy weighting method. This new method was then tested using 9551 UAV orthophotographs taken over six field campaigns. It performed satisfactorily, showing that in our study area the health status of mountain rivers was the best with the highest score of 0.94 out of 1.0. Temporally, the health of the river was better in summer (0.65) compared with that in autumn (0.40). Changes in river ecosystem health were driven by variations in biology and water quality. In contrast the outputs of RBPs, especially in relation to distance and area indices, had ~ 20% uncertainty due to visual errors and subjectivity in estimations by observers. The UAV orthophotographic imaging method proposed in this study can improve the ability to compare the health of rivers across different periods and regions throughout the globe.
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