Natural floodplains are spatially heterogeneous and dynamic ecosystems but at the same time, a highly endangered landscape feature due to climate change and human impacts such as water storage, flood control and hydropower production. Flow is considered a master variable that shapes channel morphology and the heterogeneity, distribution, and turnover of floodplain habitats. Despite their highly dynamic nature, the relative abundance of different habitat elements (islands, gravel bars) in natural floodplains seems to remain relatively constant over ecological periods and is referred to as the shifting mosaic steady state concept. In this conceptual context, we analysed spatiotemporal changes in relative habitat abundance and channel complexity of an alpine floodplain from its near natural state in 1940 before water abstraction and levee construction until 2007 using historical aerial images. Within the first decades of impairment, the relative abundance of floodplain habitats that depend on flood and flow pulses such as parafluvial channels and islands shifted toward a greater abundance of terrestrial forest and grassland habitats. After 1986, the duration and frequencies of high-precipitation events (>60 mm 24 h–1) triggering major, channel-reworking floods increased substantially and caused a restructuring of the floodplain and decrease in the abundance of more terrestrial habitat types. These results are contrary to expectations of the shifting mosaic steady state concept yet suggest its potential application as an indicator of landscape transformation and human impacts on floodplain ecosystems. Last, the results raise the applied question as to whether an increased frequency of high flow events induced by climate change can contribute to floodplain restoration. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.