The Local Effects of Climate Change Observed Through our Community Lakes
Climate change is an enormous concept that can be hard to wrap your head around. It comes in the form of melting ice caps, stronger storms and more extreme seasonal temperatures. If you’re an avid angler, photographer, swimmer, boater or nature enthusiast, it’s likely that because of climate change you’ll bear witness to astonishing shifts in nature throughout the greater portion of your lifetime. This is especially true with respect to lakes.
Lakes are living laboratories through which we can observe the local effects of climate change in our own communities. Lake ecosystems are defined by a combination of various abiotic and biotic factors. Changes in hydrology, water chemistry, biology or physical properties of a lake can have cascading consequences that may rapidly alter the overall properties of a lake. Most of the time the results are negative and the impacts severe. Recognizing and monitoring the changes that are taking place locally brings the problems of climate change closer to home, which can help raise awareness and inspire environmentally-minded action.
Princeton Hydro has put together a list of four inter-related, climate change induced environmental impacts that can affect lakes and lake communities:
1. Higher temperatures = shifts in flora and fauna populations
The survival of many lake organisms is dependent on the existence of set temperature ranges and ample oxygen levels. The amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) present in a lake is a result of oxygen diffusion from the atmosphere and its production by algae and aquatic plants via photosynthesis. An inverse relationship exists between water temperature and DO concentrations. Due to the physical properties of water, warmer water holds less DO than cooler water.
This is not good news for many flora and fauna, such as fish that can only survive and reproduce in waters of specific temperatures and DO levels. Lower oxygen levels can reduce their ability to feed, spawn and survive. Populations of cold water fishes, such as brown trout and salmon, will be jeopardized by climate change (Kernan, 2015).
Also consider the effects of changing DO levels on fishes that can tolerate these challenging conditions. They will thrive where others struggle, taking advantage of their superior fitness by expanding their area of colonization, increasing population size, and/or becoming a more dominant species in the ecosystem. A big fish in a little pond, you might say. Carp is a common example of a thermo-tolerant fish that can quickly colonize and dominate a lake’s fishery, in the process causing tremendous ecological impact (Kernan, 2010).
2. Less water availability = increased salinity
Just as fish and other aquatic organisms require specific ranges of temperature and dissolved oxygen to exist, they must also live in waters of specific salinity. Droughts are occurring worldwide in greater frequency and intensity. The lack of rain reduces inflow and higher temperatures promote increased evaporation. Diminishing inflow and dropping lake levels are affecting some lakes by concentrating dissolved minerals and increasing their salinity.
Studies of zooplankton, crustaceans and benthic insects have provided evidence of the consequences of elevated salinity levels on organismal health, reproduction and mortality (Hall and Burns, 2002; Herbst, 2013; Schallenberg et al., 2003). While salinity is not directly related to the fitness or survival rate of all aquatic organisms, an increase in salinity does tend to be stressful for many.
3. Nutrient concentrations = increased frequency of harmful algal blooms
Phosphorus is a major nutrient in determining lake health. Too little phosphorus can restrict biological growth, whereas an excess can promote unbounded proliferation of algae and aquatic plants.
If lake or pond water becomes anoxic at the sediment-water interface (meaning the water has very low or completely zero DO), phosphorus will be released from the sediment. Also some invasive plant species can actually “pump” phosphorus from the sediments and release this excess into the water column (termed luxurious uptake). This internally released and recycled sedimentary phosphorus can greatly influence lake productivity and increase the frequency, magnitude and duration of algae blooms. Rising water temperatures, declining DO and the proliferation of invasive plants are all outcomes of climate change and can lead to increases in a lake’s phosphorus concentrations and the subsequent growth and development of algae and aquatic plants.
Rising water temperatures significantly facilitate and support the development of cyanobacteria (bluegreen algae) blooms. These blooms are also fueled by increasing internal and external phosphorus loading. At very high densities, cyanobacteria may attain harmful algae bloom (HAB) proportions. Elevated concentrations of cyanotoxins may then be produced, and these compounds seriously impact the health of humans, pets and livestock.
Phosphorus loading in our local waterways also comes from nonpoint sources, especially stormwater runoff. Climate change is recognized to increase the frequency and magnitude of storm events. Larger storms intensify the mobilization and transport of pollutants from the watershed’s surrounding lakes, thus leading to an increase in nonpoint source loading. Additionally, larger storms cause erosion and instability of streams, again adding to the influx of more phosphorus to our lakes. Shifts in our regular behaviors with regards to fertilizer usage, gardening practices and community clean-ups, as well as the implementation of green-infrastructure stormwater management measures can help decrease storm-related phosphorus loading and lessen the occurrence of HABs.
4. Cumulative effects = invasive species
A lake ecosystem stressed by agents such as disturbance or eutrophication can be even more susceptible to invasive species colonization, a concept coined “invasibility” (Kernan, 2015).
For example, imagine that cold water fish species A has experienced a 50% population decrease as a result of warming water temperatures over ten years. Consequently, the fish’s main prey, species B, has also undergone rapid changes in its population structure. Inversely, it has boomed without its major predator to keep it in check. Following this pattern, the next species level down – species B’s prey, species C – has decreased in population due to intense predation by species B, and so on. Although the ecosystem can potentially achieve equilibrium, it remains in a very unstable and ecologically stressful state for a prolonged period of time. This leads to major changes in the biotic assemblage of the lake and trickle-down changes that affect its recreational use, water quality and aesthetics.
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Although your favorite lake may not experience all or some of these challenges, it is crucial to be aware of the many ways that climate change impacts the Earth. We can’t foresee exactly how much will change, but we can prepare ourselves to adapt to and aid our planet. How to start? Get directly involved in the management of your lake and pond. Decrease nutrient loading and conserve water. Act locally, but think globally. Get out and spread enthusiasm for appreciating and protecting lake ecosystems. Also, check out these tips for improving your lake’s water quality.
- Hall, Catherine J., and Carolyn W. Burns. “Mortality and Growth Responses of Daphnia Carinata to Increases in Temperature and Salinity.” Freshwater Biology 47.3 (2002): 451-58. Wiley. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
- Herbst, David B. “Defining Salinity Limits on the Survival and Growth of Benthic Insects for the Conservation Management of Saline Walker Lake, Nevada, USA.” Journal of Insect Conservation 17.5 (2013): 877-83. 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
- Kernan, M. “Climate Change and the Impact of Invasive Species on Aquatic Ecosystems.” Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management (2015): 321-33. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
- Kernan, M. R., R. W. Battarbee, and Brian Moss. “Interaction of Climate Change and Eutrophication.” Climate Change Impacts on Freshwater Ecosystems. 1st ed. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 119-51. ResearchGate. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
- Schallenberg, Marc, Catherine J. Hall, and Carolyn W. Burns. “Consequences of Climate-induced Salinity Increases on Zooplankton Abundance and Diversity in Coastal Lakes”. Marine Ecology Progress Series 251 (2003): 181-89. Inter-Research Science Center. Inter-Research. Web. 17