1. Riparian plant communities are primarily structured by the hydrological regime of the stream. Models of climate change predict increased temperatures and changed patterns of precipitation that will alter the flow of rivers and streams with consequences for riparian communities. In boreal regions of Europe, stream flows will exhibit earlier spring-flood peaks of lower magnitude, lower summer flows and higher flows in autumn and winter. We quantified the effects of predicted hydrological change on riparian plant species richness, using four different scenarios for the free-flowing Vindel River in northern Sweden.
2. We calculated the hydrological niche of vegetation belts by relating the occurrence of species and vegetation belts to data on flood duration for 10 years preceding the vegetation survey. We then used the flood duration predicted for 2071–2100 to estimate expected changes in the extent of each vegetation belt. Using species accumulation curves, we then predicted changes in plant species richness as a result of changes in extent.
3. The two most species-rich vegetation belts, riparian forest and willow shrub, were predicted to decrease most in elevational extent, up to 39 and 32%, respectively. The graminoid belt below the shrub belt will mainly shift upwards in elevation while the amphibious vegetation belt at the bottom of the riparian zone increases in size.
4. In the Vindel River, the riparian forest and willow shrub zone will lose most species, with reductions of 5–12% and 1–13% per site, respectively, depending on the scenario. The predicted loss from the entire riparian zone is lower, 1–9%, since many species occur in more than one vegetation belt. More extensive species losses are expected in the southern boreal zone for which much larger spring-flood reductions are projected.
5. With an expected reduction in area of the most species-rich belts, it becomes increasingly important to manage and protect riparian zones to alleviate other threats, thus minimising the risk of species losses. Restoring river and stream reaches degraded by other impacts to gain riparian habitat is another option to avoid species losses.