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WWF researchers create detailed map of the world’s rivers

A team of scientists from World Wildlife Fund for Nature has developed data and created maps of the world’s rivers that provide researchers with a host of valuable information about where streams and watersheds occur on the earth’s landscape and how water drains the land surface. The new product, known as HydroSHEDS, provides this information globally. The product is based on newly available high-resolution elevation data obtained during NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). HydroSHEDS stands for “Hydrological data and maps based on SHuttle Elevation Derivatives at multiple Scales.”

Although high-quality river maps exist for individual rivers and even entire nations, there is a lack of seamless high-quality data on global and continental scales. Data for many international river basins are patchy, and remote areas are often poorly mapped. For some regions of the world, such as the Congo Basin in Africa and parts of the Amazon Basin in South America, HydroSHEDS will provide the first high-resolution digital river maps produced for these large areas. Importantly, these previously poorly mapped systems are often those of exceptionally high conservation interest.

At the most basic level, HydroSHEDS will allow scientists to create digital river and watershed maps. These maps can then be coupled with a variety of other datasets or applied in computer simulations, such as hydrologic models that estimate flow regimes. The kind of hydrographic information provided by HydroSHEDS allows scientists and managers to perform analyses ranging from basic watershed delineation to sophisticated flow modeling.

HydroSHEDS developers expect a wide range of scientists will use the data. For instance, taxonomists will ultimately be able to link their field site locations directly to digital river maps. In the future, WWF researchers also hope to use HydroSHEDS to assess the possible impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystems. HydroSHEDS was developed by the Conservation Science Program of World Wildlife Fund, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, The Nature Conservancy, and the Center for Environmental Systems Research of the University of Kassel, Germany, and with the support of JohnsonDiversey. JohnsonDiversey is a provider of cleaning and sanitation products and solutions to the commercial marketplace. South America is the first continent for which data are completed. Other continents will be available over the course of the next year.