These longer periods of stratification could have “far-reaching implications” for lake ecosystems, the paper says, and can drive toxic algal blooms, fish die-offs and increased methane emissions.
The study, published in Nature Communications, finds that the average seasonal lake stratification period in the northern hemisphere could last almost two weeks longer by the end of the century, even under a low emission scenario. It finds that stratification could last over a month longer if emissions are extremely high.
If stratification periods continue to lengthen, “we can expect catastrophic changes to some lake ecosystems, which may have irreversible impacts on ecological communities,” the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief.
The study also finds that larger lakes will see more notable changes. For example, the North American Great Lakes, which house “irreplaceable biodiversity” and represent some of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems, are already experiencing “rapid changes” in their stratification periods, according to the study.
As temperatures rise in the spring, many lakes begin the process of “stratification.” Warm air heats the surface of the lake, heating the top layer of water, which separates out from the cooler layers of water beneath.
The stratified layers do not mix easily and the greater the temperature difference between the layers, the less mixing there is. Lakes generally stratify between spring and autumn, when hot weather maintains the temperature gradient between warm surface water and colder water deeper down.
Dr Richard Woolway from the European Space Agency is the lead author of the paper, which finds that climate change is driving stratification to begin earlier and end later. He tells Carbon Brief that the impacts of stratification are “widespread and extensive,” and that longer periods of stratification could have “irreversible impacts” on ecosystems.
For example, Dr Dominic Vachon – a postdoctoral fellow from the Climate Impacts Research Centre at Umea University, who was not involved in the study – explains that stratification can create a “physical barrier” that makes it harder for dissolved gases and particles to move between the layers of water.
This can prevent the oxygen from the surface of the water from sinking deeper into the lake and can lead to “deoxygenation” in the depths of the water, where oxygen levels are lower and respiration becomes more difficult.
Oxygen depletion can have “fatal consequences for living organisms,” according to Dr Bertram Boehrer, a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who was not involved in the study.
Lead author Woolway tells Carbon Brief that the decrease in oxygen levels at deeper depths traps fish in the warmer surface waters:
“Fish often migrate to deeper waters during the summer to escape warmer conditions at the surface – for example during a lake heatwave. A decrease in oxygen at depth will mean that fish will have no thermal refuge, as they often can’t survive when oxygen concentrations are too low.”
This can be very harmful for lake life and can even increase “fish die-off events” the study notes.
However, the impacts of stratification are not limited to fish. The study notes that a shift to earlier stratification in spring can also encourage communities of phytoplankton – a type of algae – to grow sooner, and can put them out of sync with the species that rely on them for food. This is called a “trophic mismatch.”
Prof Catherine O’Reilly, a professor of geography, geology and the environment at Illinois State University, who was not involved in the study, adds that longer stratified periods could also “increase the likelihood of harmful algae blooms.”
The impact of climate change on lakes also extends beyond ecosystems. Low oxygen levels in lakes can enhance the production of methane, which is “produced in and emitted from lakes at globally significant rates,” according to the study.
Woolway explains that higher levels of warming could therefore create a positive climate feedback in lakes, where rising temperatures mean larger planet-warming emissions:
“Low oxygen levels at depth also promotes methane production in lake sediments, which can then be released to the surface either via bubbles or by diffusion, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change.”
Onset and Breakup
In the study, the authors determine historical changes in lake stratification periods using long-term observational data from some of the “best-monitored lakes in the world” and daily simulations from a collection of lake models.
They also run simulations of future changes in lake stratification period under three different emission scenarios, to determine how…