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Climate change could cause ‘irreversible impacts’ to lake ecosystems

Climate change could cause ‘irreversible impacts’ to lake ecosystems

New research shows that lake “stratification periods” – a seasonal separation of water into layers – will last longer in a warmer climate.

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.

‘Fatal consequences’
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.

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