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Harmful filamentous cyanobacteria favoured by reduced water turnover with lake warming


Anthropogenic-induced changes in nutrient ratios have increased the susceptibility of large temperate lakes to several effects of rising air temperatures and the resulting heating of water bodies1. First, warming leads to stronger thermal stratification, thus impeding natural complete water turnover (holomixis), which compensates for oxygen deficits in the deep zones2,3. Second, increased water temperatures and nutrient concentrations can directly favour the growth of harmful algae4,5,6. Thus, lake-restoration programmes have focused on reducing nutrients to limit toxic algal blooms7. Here we present evidence that the ubiquitous8,9,10 harmful cyanobacterium Planktothrix rubescens has become the dominant species in a large lake during the past four decades, although the phosphorus content of the ecosystem decreased fivefold. However, the nitrogen input was not diminished concomitantly, favouring this non-N2-fixing cyanobacterium owing to increased N:P ratios10. P. rubescens contains gas vesicles that allow for buoyancy to accumulate within the depth of optimal irradiance11. As the toxic cyanobacterium has low consumption by predators12, water turnover represents the main mechanism of seasonal population control. Thus, unidirectional lake-restoration measures13 in parallel with recurrent absence of holomixis owing to lake warming may lead to similar undesired effects that have formerly emerged from fertilization.

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Figure 1: Trends in whole-lake content of nutrients and phytoplankton in Lake Zurich.
Figure 2: Seasonality of P. rubescens and its spatial distribution.
Figure 3: Context of rising air temperatures with thermal stratification, total-lake O2 content and biomass of P. rubescens.
Figure 4: Relationship between mixing depth, lake warming and growth of P. rubescens.


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The long-term monitoring was financially supported by the WVZ and the Amt für Abfall, Wasser, Energie und Luft. Meteorological data were obtained from the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology (MeteoSwiss). The evaluation of the data set was financially supported by projects of the Swiss National Fund (31003A_138473; CR22I2_130023/1). We thank M. E. Garneau and R. Psenner for comments on the manuscript.

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Interpolation of depth profiles and calculations of whole-lake contents were carried out by T.P. The long-term data set was provided by O.K., as representative of the WVZ. Statistical analyses were carried out by M.M.S. All authors discussed the results and created the design of the figures. T.P. and J.P. prepared the manuscript, which was edited by M.M.S. and O.K.

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Correspondence to Thomas Posch.

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Posch, T., Köster, O., Salcher, M. et al. Harmful filamentous cyanobacteria favoured by reduced water turnover with lake warming. Nature Clim Change 2, 809–813 (2012).

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