The south-eastern United States and Gulf Coast of Mexico is physiographically diverse, although dominated by a broad coastal plain. Much of the region has a humid, warm temperate climate with little seasonality in precipitation but strong seasonality in runoff owing to high rates of summer evapotranspiration. The climate of southern Florida and eastern Mexico is subtropical with a distinct summer wet season and winter dry season. Regional climate models suggest that climate change resulting from a doubling of the pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2 may increase annual air temperatures by 3–4°C. Changes in precipitation are highly uncertain, but the most probable scenario shows higher levels over all but the northern, interior portions of the region, with increases primarily occurring in summer and occurring as more intense or clustered storms. Despite the increases in precipitation, runoff is likely to decline over much of the region owing to increases in evapotranspiration exceeding increases in precipitation. Only in Florida and the Gulf Coast areas of the US and Mexico are precipitation increases likely to exceed evapotranspiration increases, producing an increase in runoff. However, increases in storm intensity and clustering are likely to result in more extreme hydrographs, with larger peaks in flow but lower baseflows and longer periods of drought.

The ecological effects of climate change on freshwaters of the region include: (1) a general increase in rates of primary production, organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling as a result of higher temperatures and longer growing seasons: (2) reduction in habitat for cool water species, particularly fish and macroinvertebrates in Appalachian streams; (3) reduction in water quality and in suitable habitat in summer owing to lower baseflows and intensification of the temperature–dissolved oxygen squeeze in many rivers and reservoirs; (4) reduction in organic matter storage and loss of organisms during more intense flushing events in some streams and wetlands; (5) shorter periods of inundation of riparian wetlands and greater drying of wetland soils, particularly in northern and inland areas; (6) expansion of subtropical species northwards, including several non-native nuisance species currently confined to southern Florida; (7) expansion of wetlands in Florida and coastal Mexico, but increase in eutrophication of Florida lakes as a result of greater runoff from urban and agricultural areas; and (8) changes in the flushing rate of estuaries that would alter their salinity regimes, stratification and water quality as well as influence productivity in the Gulf of Mexico.

Many of the expected climate change effects will exacerbate current anthropogenic stresses on the region's freshwater systems, including increasing demands for water, increasing waste heat loadings and land use changes that alter the quantity and quality of runoff to streams and reservoirs. Research is needed especially in several critical areas: long-term monitoring of key hydrological, chemical and biological properties (particularly water balances in small, forested catchments and temperature-sensitive species); experimental studies of the effects of warming on organisms and ecosystem processes under realistic conditions (e.g. in situ heating experiments); studies of the effects of natural hydrological variation on biological communities; and assessment of the effects of water management activities on organisms and ecosystem processes, including development and testing of management and restoration strategies designed to counteract changes in climate. © 1997 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.