Ice provides a range of ecosystem services—including fish harvest1, cultural traditions2, transportation3, recreation4 and regulation of the hydrological cycle5—to more than half of the world’s 117 million lakes. One of the earliest observed impacts of climatic warming has been the loss of freshwater ice6, with corresponding climatic and ecological consequences7. However, while trends in ice cover phenology have been widely documented2,6,8,9, a comprehensive large-scale assessment of lake ice loss is absent. Here, using observations from 513 lakes around the Northern Hemisphere, we identify lakes vulnerable to ice-free winters. Our analyses reveal the importance of air temperature, lake depth, elevation and shoreline complexity in governing ice cover. We estimate that 14,800 lakes currently experience intermittent winter ice cover, increasing to 35,300 and 230,400 at 2 and 8 °C, respectively, and impacting up to 394 and 656 million people. Our study illustrates that an extensive loss of lake ice will occur within the next generation, stressing the importance of climate mitigation strategies to preserve ecosystem structure and function, as well as local winter cultural heritage.
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The ice phenology record, as well as location, mean depth, surface area and elevation data, were sourced from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center Lake and River Ice Phenology database, which was updated through the 2017–2018 winter11. We acquired additional information (shoreline complexity and length, residence time, volume, mean discharge, slope within 100m of the lake shore and watershed area) for each of these lakes from the HydroLAKES database18. We acquired climate information for each lake (mean annual air temperature for 1970–2010) from the CRU30. Data that support the findings of this study are available at https://portal.edirepository.org/nis/mapbrowse?packageid=edi.267.2.
Journal peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Tiina Noges and Grant Gunn for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
We are indebted to the numerous data providers who shared and updated their ice phenology records for the National Snow and Ice Data Center Lake and River Ice Phenology database. We thank A. Kuthakumar, T. Sadid and A. Shuvo for gathering lake morphology data from the literature. Funding was provided to S.S. by the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science Early Researcher Award, York University Research Chair programme and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. S.O. was partially supported by funding from the Department of the Interior Northeast Climate Science Center. Most data used in this manuscript are publicly available. The lake ice records were made available through the Long Term Ecological Research Network. In addition, the North Temperate Lakes Long Term Ecological Research (NSF number DEB-1440297) programme provided data, funding and participation support for this project. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. This work was supported by the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network. We thank K. Jankowski for constructive comments that improved the manuscript.