Global lake responses to climate change



Climate change is one of the most severe threats to global lake ecosystems. Lake surface conditions, such as ice cover, surface temperature, evaporation and water level, respond dramatically to this threat, as observed in recent decades. In this Review, we discuss physical lake variables and their responses to climate change. Decreases in winter ice cover and increases in lake surface temperature modify lake mixing regimes and accelerate lake evaporation. Where not balanced by increased mean precipitation or inflow, higher evaporation rates will favour a decrease in lake level and surface water extent. Together with increases in extreme-precipitation events, these lake responses will impact lake ecosystems, changing water quantity and quality, food provisioning, recreational opportunities and transportation. Future research opportunities, including enhanced observation of lake variables from space (particularly for small water bodies), improved in situ lake monitoring and the development of advanced modelling techniques to predict lake processes, will improve our global understanding of lake responses to a changing climate.

Key points

  • Owing to climate change, lakes are experiencing less ice cover, with more than 100,000 lakes at risk of having ice-free winters if air temperatures increase by 4 °C. Ice duration has become 28 days shorter on average over the past 150 years for Northern Hemisphere lakes, with higher rates of change in recent decades.

  • Lake surface water temperatures have increased worldwide at a global average rate of 0.34 °C decade−1, which is similar to or in excess of air temperature trends.

  • Global annual mean lake evaporation rates are forecast to increase 16% by 2100, with regional variations dependent on factors such as ice cover, stratification, wind speed and solar radiation.

  • Global lake water storage is sensitive to climate change, but with substantial regional variability, and the magnitude of future changes in lake water storage remains uncertain.

  • Decreases in winter ice cover and increasing lake surface water temperatures have led to mixing-regime alterations that have typically resulted in less frequent mixing of lakes.

  • Ecological consequences of these physical changes vary widely depending upon location, lake depth and area, mixing regime and trophic status.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Lakes in a changing climate.
Fig. 2: Lake ice cover responses to climate change.
Fig. 3: Lake surface water temperatures under climate change.
Fig. 4: Lake evaporation response to climate change.
Fig. 5: Lake level changes for 17 lakes on the Tibetan Plateau.
Fig. 6: Lake mixing regime alterations due to projected twenty-first century climate change.


  1. 1.

    Verpoorter, C., Kutser, T., Seekell, D. A. & Tranvik, L. J. A global inventory of lakes based on high-resolution satellite imagery. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 6396–6402 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Gleick, P. H. Water and conflict: fresh water resources and international security. Int. Secur. 18, 79–112 (1993).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Abell, R. et al. Freshwater ecoregions of the world: a new map of biogeographic units for freshwater biodiversity conservation. BioScience 58, 403–414 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Rinke, K., Keller, P. S., Kong, X., Borchardt, D. & Weitere, M. in Atlas of Ecosystem Services: Drivers, Risks, and Societal Responses (eds Schröter, M., Bonn, A., Klotz, S., Seppelt, R. & Baessler, C.) 191–195 (Springer, 2019)

  5. 5.

    United Nations. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. 21 October 2015 A/RES/70/1 (2016)

  6. 6.

    Adrian, R. et al. Lakes as sentinels of climate change. Limnol. Oceanogr. 54, 2283–2297 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Sharma, S. et al. Widespread loss of lake ice around the Northern Hemisphere in a warming world. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 227–231 (2019). Demonstrated that lake ice cover will severely diminish during the twenty-first century throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with many lakes no longer experiencing ice cover in winter.

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Rodell, M. et al. Emerging trends in global freshwater availability. Nature 557, 651–659 (2018). Quantified trends and characterized the drivers of change in terrestrial water storage observed by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites.

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Wang, W. et al. Global lake evaporation accelerated by changes in surface energy allocation in a warmer climate. Nat. Geosci. 11, 410–414 (2018). First study to demonstrate that lake evaporation will increase worldwide during the twenty-first century due to a warming of lake surface temperature and a reduction in lake ice cover.

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    O’Reilly, C. M. et al. Rapid and highly variable warming of lake surface waters around the globe. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 10773–10781 (2015). First global-scale analysis of satellite-derived and in situ lake surface temperature responses to climate change, showing rapid and widespread warming of lakes from 1985 to 2009.

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Woolway, R. I. & Merchant, C. J. Worldwide alteration of lake mixing regimes in response to climate change. Nat. Geosci. 12, 271–276 (2019). Projected that climate change will result in the worldwide alteration of lake mixing regimes by the end of the twenty-first century, which will have large implications for lake ecosystems.

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Pekel, J.-F., Cottam, A., Gorelick, N. & Belward, A. S. High-resolution mapping of global surface water and its long-term changes. Nature 540, 418–422 (2016). Investigated the temporal and spatial variations in the availability of surface water worldwide since 1984, as well as its response to climate change and human activities.

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Walsh, S. E. et al. Global patterns of lake ice phenology and climate model simulations and observations. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 103, 28825–28837 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Magnuson, J. J. et al. Historical trends in lake and river ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere. Science 289, 1743–1746 (2000). Analyzed ice-cover trends from lakes and rivers around the Northern Hemisphere using over 100 years of data.

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Brown, L. C. & Duguay, C. R. The response and role of ice cover in lake-climate interactions. Prog. Phys. Geogr. 34, 671–704 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Vavrus, S. J., Wynne, R. H. & Foley, J. A. Measuring the sensitivity of southern Wisconsin lake ice to climate variations and lake depth using a numerical model. Limnol. Oceanogr. 41, 822–831 (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Spence, C., Blanken, P. D., Lenters, J. D. & Hedstrom, N. The importance of spring and autumn atmospheric conditions for the evaporation regime of Lake Superior. J. Hydrometeorol. 14, 1647–1658 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Jensen, O. P. et al. Spatial analysis of ice phenology trends across the Laurentian Great Lakes region during a recent warming period. Limnol. Oceanogr. 52, 2013–2026 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Nöges, P. & Nöges, T. Weak trends in ice phenology of Estonian large lakes despite significant warming trends. Hydrobiologia 731, 5–18 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Williams, G., Layman, K. & Stefan, H. G. Dependence of lake ice covers on climatic, geographic and bathymetric variables. Cold Reg. Sci. Technol. 40, 145–164 (2004).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Magee, M. R. & Wu, C. H. Effects of changing climate on ice cover in three morphometrically different lakes. Hydrol. Process. 31, 308–323 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Palecki, M. A. & Barry, R. G. Freeze-up and break-up of lakes as an index of temperature changes during the transition seasons: A case study for Finland. J. Clim. Appl. Meteorol. 25, 893–902 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Duguay, C. R. et al. Recent trends in Canadian lake ice cover. Hydrol. Process. 20, 781–801 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Weyhenmeyer, G. A. et al. Large geographical differences in the sensitivity of ice-covered lakes and rivers in the Northern Hemisphere to temperature changes. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 268–275 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Arp, C. D., Jones, B. M. & Gross, G. Recent lake ice-out phenology within and among lake districts of Alaska, USA. Limnol. Oceanogr. 58, 213–228 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Benson, B. J. et al. Extreme events, trends, and variability in Northern Hemisphere lake-ice phenology (1855–2005). Clim. Change 112, 299–323 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Sharma, S., Magnuson, J. J., Mendoza, G. & Carpenter, S. R. Influences of local weather, large-scale climatic drivers, and the ca. 11 year solar cycle on lake ice breakup dates; 1905-2004. Clim. Change 118, 857–870 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Jakkila, J. et al. Radiation transfer and heat budget during the ice season in Lake Paajarvi, Finland. Aquat. Ecol. 43, 681–692 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Kouraev, A. V. et al. The ice regime of Lake Baikal from historical and satellite data: Relationship to air temperature, dynamical, and other factors. Limnol. Oceanogr. 52, 1268–1286 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Kirillin, G. et al. Physics of seasonally ice-covered lakes: a review. Aquat. Sci. 74, 659–682 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Brown, L. C. & Duguay, C. R. The fate of lake ice in the North American Arctic. Cryosphere 5, 869–892 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Dibike, Y., Prowse, T., Saloranta, T. & Ahmed, R. Response of Northern Hemisphere lake-ice cover and lake-water thermal structure patterns to a changing climate. Hydrol. Process. 25, 2942–2953 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Sharma, S. et al. Direct observations of ice seasonality reveal changes in climate over the past 320–570 years. Sci. Rep. 6, 25061 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Robertson, D. M., Wynne, R. H. & Chang, W. Y. B. Influence of El Niño on lake and river ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere from 1900 to 1995. Verh. Int. Ver. Theor. Angew. Limnol. 27, 2784–2788 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Van Cleave, K., Lenters, J. D., Wang, J. & Verhamme, E. M. A regime shift in Lake Superior ice cover, evaporation, and water temperature following the warm El Niñ winter of 1997–1998. Limnol. Oceanogr. 59, 1889–1898 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Lopez, L. S., Hewitt, B. A. & Sharma, S. Reaching a break point: how is climate change influencing the timing of ice break-up in lakes across the Northern Hemisphere. Limnol. Oceanogr. 64, 2621–2631 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Higuchi, K., Huang, J. & Shabbar, A. A wavelet characterization of the North Atlantic oscillation variation and its relationship to the North Atlantic sea surface temperature. Int. J. Climatol. 19, 1119–1129 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Li, J. et al. Interdecadal modulation of El Niño amplitude during the past millennium. Nat. Clim. Change 1, 114–118 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Bai, X., Wang, J., Sellinger, C., Clites, A. & Assel, R. Interannual variability of Great Lakes ice cover and its relationship to NAO and ENSO. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 117, C03002 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Edinger, J. E., Duttweiler, D. W. & Geyer, J. C. The response of water temperature to meteorological conditions. Water Resour. Res. 4, 1137–1143 (1968).

    Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Lenters, J. D., Kratz, T. K. & Bowser, C. J. Effects of climate variability on lake evaporation: results from a long-term energy budget study of Sparkling Lake, northern Wisconsin (USA). J. Hydrol. 308, 168–195 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Austin, J. A. & Colman, S. M. Lake Superior summer water temperatures are increasing more rapidly than regional air temperatures: a positive ice-albedo feedback. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L06604 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Woolway, R. I. & Merchant, C. J. Amplified surface temperature response of cold, deep lakes to inter-annual air temperature variability. Sci. Rep. 7, 4130 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Schmid, M. & Köster, O. Excess warming of a Central European lake driven by solar brightening. Water Resour. Res. 52, 8103–8116 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Zhong, Y., Notaro, M., Vavrus, S. J. & Foster, M. J. Recent accelerated warming of the Laurentian Great Lakes: Physical drivers. Limnol. Oceanogr. 61, 1762–1786 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Woolway, R. I. et al. Northern Hemisphere atmospheric stilling accelerates lake thermal responses to a warming world. Geophys. Res. Lett. 46, 11983–11992 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Råman Vinnå, L., Wüest, A., Zappa, M., Fink, G. & Bouffard, D. Tributaries affect the thermal response of lakes to climate change. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 22, 31–51 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Rose, K. C., Winslow, L. A., Read, J. S. & Hansen, G. J. A. Climate-induced warming of lakes can be either amplified or suppressed by trends in water clarity. Limnol. Oceanogr. Lett. 1, 44–53 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Pilla, R. M. et al. Browning-related decreases in water transparency lead to long-term increases in surface water temperature and thermal stratification in two small lakes. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 123, 1651–1665 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Screen, J. A. & Simmonds, I. The central role of diminishing sea ice in recent arctic temperature amplification. Nature 464, 1334–1337 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Stuecker, M. F. et al. Polar amplification dominated by local forcing and feedbacks. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 1076–1081 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Schneider, P. & Hook, S. J. Space observations of inland water bodies show rapid surface warming since 1985. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L22405 (2010). First worldwide study of surface-temperature trends in the largest lakes of the world.

    Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Groisman, P. Y., Karl, T. R. & Knight, R. W. Observed impact of snow cover on the heat balance and the rise of continental spring temperatures. Science 263, 198–200 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Goose, H. et al. Quantifying climate feedbacks in polar regions. Nat. Comm. 9, 1919 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Ye, X., Anderson, E. J., Chu, P. Y., Huang, C. & Wue, P. Impact of water mixing and ice formation on the warming of Lake Superior: a model-guided mechanism study. Limnol. Oceanogr. 64, 558–574 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Mishra, V., Cherkauer, K. A. & Bowling, L. C. Changing thermal dynamics of lakes in the Great Lakes region: role of ice cover feedbacks. Glob. Planet Change 75, 155–172 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Woolway, R. I. & Merchant, C. J. Intralake heterogeneity of thermal responses to climate change: A study of large northern hemisphere lakes. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 123, 3087–3098 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Winslow, L. A., Reed, J. S., Hansen, G. J. A., Rose, K. C. & Robertson, D. M. Seasonality of change: Summer warming rates do not fully represent effects of climate change on lake temperatures. Limnol. Oceanogr. 62, 2168–2178 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Woolway, R. I. et al. Warming of Central European lakes and their response to the 1980s climate regime shift. Clim. Change 142, 505–520 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Maberly, S. C. et al. Global lake thermal regions shift under climate change. Nat. Comm. 11, 1232 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Schindler, D. W. The cumulative effects of climate warming and other human stresses on Canadian freshwaters in the new millennium. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 58, 18–29 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Riveros-Iregui, D. A. et al. Evaporation from a shallow, saline lake in the Nebraska Sandhills: Energy balance drivers of seasonal and interannual variability. J. Hydrol. 553, 172–187 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    MacIntyre, S. et al. Climate-related variations in mixing dynamics in an Alaskan arctic lake. Limnol. Oceanogr. 54, 2401–2417 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Zhan, S., Song, C., Wang, J., Sheng, Y. & Quan, J. A global assessment of terrestrial evapotranspiration increase due to surface water area change. Earths Future 7, 266–282 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Salhotra, A. M. Effect of salinity and ionic composition on evaporation: analysis of Dead Sea evaporation pans. Water Resour. Res. 21, 1336–1344 (1985).

    Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Fujisaki-Manome, A. et al. Turbulent heat fluxes during an extreme lake-effect snow event. J. Hydrometeorol. 18, 3145–3163 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Friedrich, K. et al. Reservoir evaporation in the Western United States: current science, challenges, and future needs. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 99, 167–187 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T. & Kiehl, J. T. Earth’s global energy budget. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 311–323 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Wild, M. et al. The global energy balance from a surface perspective. Clim. Dyn. 40, 3107–3134 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Verburg, P. & Antenucci, J. P. Persistent unstable atmospheric boundary layer enhances sensible and latent heat loss in a tropical great lake: Lake Tanganyika. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 115, D11109 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  71. 71.

    Woolway, R. I. et al. Geographic and temporal variations in turbulent heat loss from lakes: A global analysis across 45 lakes. Limnol. Oceanogr. 63, 2436–2449 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Blanken, P. D., Spence, C., Hedstrom, N. & Lenters, J. D. Evaporation from Lake Superior: 1. Physical controls and processes. J. Great Lakes Res. 37, 707–716 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    McVicar, T. R. et al. Global review and synthesis of trends in observed terrestrial near-surface wind speeds: Implications for evaporation. J. Hydrol. 416–417, 182–205 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Watras, C. J., Morrison, K. A. & Rubsam, J. L. Effect of DOC on evaporation from small Wisconsin lakes. J. Hydrol. 540, 162–175 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Wild, M. Global dimming and brightening: A review. J. Geophys. Res. 114, D00D16 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Roderick, M. L. & Farquhar, G. D. The cause of decreased pan evaporation over the past 50 years. Science 298, 1410–1411 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Zeng, Z. et al. A reversal in global terrestrial stilling and its implications for wind energy production. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 979–985 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  78. 78.

    Desai, A. R., Austin, J. A., Bennington, V. & McKinley, G. A. Stronger winds over a large lake in response to weakening air-to-lake temperature gradient. Nat. Geosci. 2, 855–858 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Roderick, M. L., Sun, F., Lim, W. H. & Farquhar, G. D. A general framework for understanding the response of the water cycle to global warming over land and ocean. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 1575–1589 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  80. 80.

    Sherwood, S. & Fu, Q. A drier future? Science 343, 737–739 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  81. 81.

    Liu, H., Blanken, P. D., Weidinger, T., Nordbo, A. & Vesala, T. Variability in cold front activities modulating cool-season evaporation from a southern inland water in the USA. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 024022 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  82. 82.

    Watras, C. J. et al. Decadal oscillation of lakes and aquifers in the upper Great Lakes region of North America: Hydroclimatic implications. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 456–462 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  83. 83.

    Held, I. M. & Soden, B. J. Robust responses of the hydrological cycle to global warming. J. Clim. 19, 5686–5699 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  84. 84.

    Trenberth, K. E. Changes in precipitation with climate change. Clim. Res. 47, 123–138 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  85. 85.

    Greve, P. et al. Global assessment of trends in wetting and drying over land. Nat. Geosci. 7, 716–721 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  86. 86.

    Donat, M. G., Lowry, A. L., Alexander, L. V., O’Gorman, P. A. & Maher, N. More extreme precipitation in the world’s dry and wet regions. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 508–513 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  87. 87.

    Liu, C. & Allen, R. P. Observed and simulated precipitation responses in wet and dry regions 1850–2100. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 034002 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  88. 88.

    Byrne, M. P. & O’Gorman, P. A. The response of precipitation minus evapotranspiration to climate warming: Why the “Wet-Get-Wetter, Dry-Get-Drier” scaling does not hold over land. J. Clim. 28, 8078–8092 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  89. 89.

    Chadwick, R., Good, P., Martin, G. & Rowell, D. P. Large rainfall changes consistently projected over substantial areas of tropical land. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 177–181 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  90. 90.

    Greve, P. & Seneviratne, S. I. Assessment of future changes in water availability and aridity. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 5493–5499 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  91. 91.

    Huang, J., Yu, H., Guan, X., Wang, G. & Guo, R. Accelerated dryland expansion under climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 166–171 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  92. 92.

    Boehlert, B., Solomon, S. & Strzepek, K. M. Water under a changing and uncertain climate: lessons from climate model ensembles. J. Clim. 28, 9561–9582 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  93. 93.

    Kumar, S., Allan, R. P., Zwiers, F., Lawrence, D. M. & Dirmeyer, P. A. Revisiting trends in wetness and dryness in the presence of internal climate variability and water limitations over land. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 10,867–10,875 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  94. 94.

    Markonis, Y., Papalexiou, S. M., Matinkova, M. & Hanel, M. Assessment of water cycle intensification over land using a multisource global gridded precipitation dataset. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 124, 11175–11187 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  95. 95.

    Brutsaert, W. & Parlange, M. B. Hydrologic cycle explains the evaporation paradox. Nature 396, 30 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  96. 96.

    Westra, S., Alexander, L. V. & Zwiers, F. W. Global increasing trends in annual maximum daily precipitation. J. Clim. 26, 3904–3918 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  97. 97.

    Gronewold, A. D. & Rood, R. B. Recent water level changes across Earth’s largest lake system and implications for future variability. J. Great Lakes Res. 45, 1–3 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  98. 98.

    Notaro, M., Bennington, V. & Lofgren, B. Dynamical downscaling-based projections of Great Lakes water levels. J. Clim. 28, 9721–9745 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  99. 99.

    Busker, T. et al. A global lake and reservoir volume analysis using a surface water dataset and satellite altimetry. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 23, 669–690 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  100. 100.

    Hegerl, G. C. et al. Challenges in quantifying changes in the global water cycle. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 96, 1097–1115 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  101. 101.

    Zhang, G. et al. Extensive and drastically different alpine lake changes on Asia’s high plateaus during the past four decades. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 252–260 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  102. 102.

    Zhang, G. et al. Lake volume and groundwater storage variations in Tibetan Plateau’s endorheic basin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 5550–5560 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  103. 103.

    Huang, L., Liu, J., Shao, Q. & Liu, R. Changing inland lakes responding to climate warming in Northeastern Tibetan Plateau. Clim. Change 109, 479–502 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  104. 104.

    Ma, R. et al. A half-century of changes in China’s lakes: Global warming or human influence? Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L24106 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  105. 105.

    Wang, J. et al. Recent global decline in endorheic basin water storages. Nat. Geosci. 11, 926–932 (2018). Used satellite observations and hydrological modelling to demonstrate that the global endorheic system experienced a widespread water loss during the start of the twenty-first century.

    Google Scholar 

  106. 106.

    Smith, L. C., Sheng, Y., MacDonald, G. M. & Hinzman, L. D. Disappearing arctic lakes. Science 308, 1429 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  107. 107.

    van Huissteden, J. et al. Methane emissions from permafrost thaw lakes limited by lake drainage. Nat. Clim. Change 1, 119–123 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  108. 108.

    Micklin, P. The past, present, and future Aral Sea. Lakes Reserv. Res. Manag. 15, 193–213 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  109. 109.

    Small, E. E., Giorgi, F., Sloan, L. C. & Hostetler, S. The effects of desiccation and climatic change on the hydrology of the Aral Sea. J. Clim. 14, 300–322 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  110. 110.

    Satgé, F. et al. Role of climate variability and human activity on Poopó Lake droughts between 1990 and 2015 assessed using remote sensing data. Remote Sens. 9, 218 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  111. 111.

    Lei, Y. et al. Extreme lake level changes on the Tibetan Plateau associated with the 2015/2016 El Ninõ. Geophys. Res. Lett. 46, 5889–5898 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  112. 112.

    Wang, S. Y., Gillies, R. R., Jin, J. & Hipps, L. E. Coherence between the Great Salt Lake level and the Pacific quasi-decadal oscillation. J. Clim. 23, 2161–2177 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  113. 113.

    Benson, L. V. et al. Correlation of late-Pleistocene lake-level oscillations in Mono Lake, California, with North Atlantic climate events. Quat. Res. 49, 1–10 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  114. 114.

    Marchant, R., Mumbi, C., Behera, S. & Yamagata, T. The Indian Ocean dipole - the unsung driver of climatic variability in East Africa. Afr. J. Ecol. 45, 4–16 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  115. 115.

    Awange, J. L. et al. Falling Lake Victoria water levels: Is climate a contributing factor? Clim. Change 89, 281–297 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  116. 116.

    Muller, M. Cape Town’s drought: don’t blame climate change. Nature 559, 174–176 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  117. 117.

    Angel, J. R. & Kunkel, K. E. The response of Great Lakes water levels to future climate scenarios with an emphasis on Lake Michigan-Huron. J. Great Lakes Res. 36, 51–58 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  118. 118.

    Malsy, M., Aus der Beek, T., Eisner, S. & Flörke, M. Climate change impacts on Central Asian water resources. Adv. Geosci. 32, 77–83 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  119. 119.

    MacKay, M. & Seglenieks, F. On the simulation of Laurentian Great Lakes water levels under projections of global climate change. Clim. Change 117, 55–67 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  120. 120.

    Lewis, W. M. Jr A revised classification of lakes based on mixing. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 40, 1779–1787 (1983).

    Google Scholar 

  121. 121.

    Kirillin, G. Modeling the impact of global warming on water temperature and seasonal mixing regimes in small temperate lakes. Boreal. Environ. Res. 15, 279–293 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  122. 122.

    Shatwell, T., Thiery, W. & Kirillin, G. Future projections of temperature and mixing regime of European temperate lakes. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 23, 1533–1551 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  123. 123.

    Ficker, H., Luger, M. & Gassner, H. From dimictic to monomictic: empirical evidence of thermal regime transitions in three deep alpine lakes in Austria induced by climate change. Freshw. Biol. 62, 1335–1345 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  124. 124.

    Mueller, D. R., Van Hove, P., Antoniades, D., Jeffries, M. O. & Vincent, W. F. High Arctic lakes as sentinel ecosystems: Cascading regime shifts in climate, ice cover, and mixing. Limnol. Oceanogr. 54, 2371–2385 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  125. 125.

    Woolway, R. I. et al. Substantial increase in minimum lake surface temperatures under climate change. Clim. Change 155, 81–94 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  126. 126.

    Yankova, Y., Neuenschwander, S., Köster, O. & Posch, T. Abrupt stop of deep water turnover with lake warming: Drastic consequences for algal primary producers. Sci. Rep. 7, 13770 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  127. 127.

    Weyhenmeyer, G. A., Westöö, A.-K. & Willén, E. in European Large Lakes Ecosystem Changes and Their Ecological and Socioeconomic Impacts. Developments in Hydrobiology Vol. 199 (eds Nõges, T. et al) 111–118 (Springer, 2007)

  128. 128.

    Woolway, R. I., Meinson, P., Nõges, P., Jones, I. D. & Laas, A. Atmospheric stilling leads to prolonged thermal stratification in a large shallow polymictic lake. Clim. Change 141, 759–773 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  129. 129.

    Shatwell, T., Adrian, R. & Kirillin, G. Planktonic events may cause polymictic-dimictic regime shifts in temperate lakes. Sci. Rep. 6, 24361 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  130. 130.

    Williamson, C. E. et al. Lakes as sensors in the landscape: optical metrics as scalable sentinel responses to climate change. Limnol. Oceanogr. 59, 840–850 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  131. 131.

    de Wit, H. A. et al. Current browning of surface waters will be further promoted by wetter climate. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 3, 430–435 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  132. 132.

    Meyer-Jacob, C. et al. The browning and re-browning of lakes: divergent lake-water organic carbon trends linked to acid deposition and climate change. Sci. Rep. 9, 16676 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  133. 133.

    Rogozin, D. Y. et al. Disturbance of meromixis in saline Lake Shira (Siberia, Russia): Possible reasons and ecosystem response. Limnologica 66, 12–23 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  134. 134.

    Ho, J. C., Michalak, A. M. & Pahlevan, N. Widespread global increase in intense lake phytoplankton blooms since the 1980s. Nature 574, 667–670 (2019). Used three decades of high-resolution satellite imagery to investigate long-term trends in intense near-surface phytoplankton blooms for 71 large lakes globally.

    Google Scholar 

  135. 135.

    da Silva, C. F. M., Torgan, L. C. & Schneck, F. Temperature and surface runoff affect the community of periphytic diatoms and have distinct effects on functional groups: evidence of a mesocosms experiment. Hydrobiologia 839, 37–50 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  136. 136.

    Urrutia-Cordero, P. et al. Phytoplankton diversity loss along a gradient of future warming and brownification in freshwater mesocosms. Freshw. Biol. 62, 1869–1878 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  137. 137.

    Fey, S. B., Mertens, A. N., Beversdorf, L. J., McMahon, K. D. & Cottingham, K. L. Recognizing cross-ecosystem responses to changing temperatures: soil warming impacts pelagic food webs. Oikos 124, 1473–1481 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  138. 138.

    Huisman, J. et al. Cyanobacterial blooms. Nat. Rev. Microbiol. 16, 471–483 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  139. 139.

    Urrutia-Cordero, P., Ekvall, M. K. & Hansson, L. A. Local food web management increases resilience and buffers against global change effects on freshwaters. Sci. Rep. 6, 29542 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  140. 140.

    Gallina, N., Beniston, M. & Jacquet, S. Estimating future cyanobacterial occurrence and importance in lakes: a case study with Planktothrix rubescens in Lake Geneva. Aquat. Sci. 79, 249–263 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  141. 141.

    Favot, E. J. et al. Climate variability promotes unprecedented cyanobacterial blooms in a remote, oligotrophic Ontario lake: evidence from paleolimnology. J. Paleolimnol. 62, 31–52 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  142. 142.

    Shi, K. et al. Phenology of phytoplankton blooms in a trophic lake observed from long-term MODIS data. Environ. Sci. Technol. 53, 2324–2331 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  143. 143.

    Maeda, E. E. et al. Temporal patterns of phytoplankton phenology across high latitude lakes unveiled by long-term time series of satellite data. Remote Sens. Environ. 221, 609–620 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  144. 144.

    Jeppesen, E. et al. Ecological impacts of global warming and water abstraction on lakes and reservoirs due to changes in water level and related changes in salinity. Hydrobiologia 750, 201–227 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  145. 145.

    O’Reilly, C. M., Alin, S. R., Plisnier, P.-D., Cohen, A. S. & McKee, B. A. Climate change decreases aquatic ecosystem productivity of Lake Tanganyika, Africa. Nature 424, 766–768 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  146. 146.

    Verburg, P., Hecky, R. E. & Kling, H. Ecological consequences of a century of warming in Lake Tanganyika. Science 301, 505–507 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  147. 147.

    Galloway, A. W. E. & Winder, M. Partitioning the relative importance of phylogeny and environmental conditions on phytoplankton fatty acids. PLoS One 10, e0130053 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  148. 148.

    Verbeek, L., Gall, A., Hillebrand, H. & Striebel, M. Warming and oligotrophication cause shifts in freshwater phytoplankton communities. Glob. Change Biol. 24, 4532–4543 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  149. 149.

    Hesselschwerdt, J. & Wantzen, K. M. Global warming may lower thermal barriers against invasive species in freshwater ecosystems - A study from Lake Constance. Sci. Total Environ. 645, 44–50 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  150. 150.

    Obryk, M. K. et al. Responses of Antarctic marine and freshwater ecosystems to changing ice conditions. Bioscience 66, 864–879 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  151. 151.

    Saros, J. E. et al. Arctic climate shifts drive rapid ecosystem responses across the West Greenland landscape. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 074027 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  152. 152.

    Hampton, S. E. et al. Ecology under lake ice. Ecol. Lett. 20, 98–111 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  153. 153.

    Pastick, N. J. et al. Spatiotemporal remote sensing of ecosystem change and causation across Alaska. Glob. Change Biol. 25, 1171–1189 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  154. 154.

    Brothers, S. et al. A feedback loop links brownification and anoxia in a temperate, shallow lake. Limnol. Oceanogr. 59, 1388–1398 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  155. 155.

    Mormul, R. P., Ahlgren, J., Ekvall, M. K., Hansson, L.-A. & Brönmark, C. Water brownification may increase the invasibility of a submerged non-native macrophyte. Biol. Invasions 14, 2091–2099 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  156. 156.

    Williamson, C. E. et al. Climate change-induced increases in precipitation are reducing the potential for solar ultraviolet radiation to inactivate pathogens in surface waters. Sci. Rep. 7, 13033 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  157. 157.

    Williamson, C. E. et al. Ecological consequences of long-term browning in lakes. Sci. Rep. 5, 18666 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  158. 158.

    Hayden, B. et al. From clear lakes to murky waters - tracing the functional response of high-latitude lake communities to concurrent ‘greening’ and ‘browning’. Ecol. Lett. 22, 807–816 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  159. 159.

    Finstad, A. G. et al. From greening to browning: Catchment vegetation development and reduced S-deposition promote organic carbon load on decadal time scales in Nordic lakes. Sci. Rep. 6, 31944 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  160. 160.

    Jimenez, L., Ruhland, K. M., Jeziorski, A., Smol, J. P. & Perez-Martinez, C. Climate change and Saharan dust drive recent cladoceran and primary production changes in remote alpine lakes of Sierra Nevada, Spain. Glob. Change Biol. 24, e139–e158 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  161. 161.

    Symons, C. C., Schulhof, M. A., Cavalheri, H. B. & Shurin, J. B. Antagonistic effects of temperature and dissolved organic carbon on fish growth in California mountain lakes. Oecologia 189, 231–241 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  162. 162.

    Coleman, K. A. et al. Assessing long-term changes in aquatic ecosystems near a small conventional oil and gas operation in the Cameron Hills, southern Northwest Territories, Canada. Fund. Appl. Limnol. 192, 181–197 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  163. 163.

    Lévesque, D., Pinel-Alloul, B., Méthot, G. & Steedman, R. Effects of climate, limnological features and watershed clearcut logging on long-term variation in zooplankton communities of Boreal Shield Lakes. Water 9, 733 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  164. 164.

    Gutowsky, L. F. G. et al. Quantifying multiple pressure interactions affecting populations of a recreationally and commercially important freshwater fish. Glob. Change Biol. 25, 1049–1062 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  165. 165.

    Biswas, S. R., Vogt, R. J. & Sharma, S. Projected compositional shifts and loss of ecosystem services in freshwater fish communities under climate change scenarios. Hydrobiologia 799, 135–149 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  166. 166.

    Smith, S. D. P. et al. Evidence for interactions among environmental stressors in the Laurentian Great Lakes. Ecol. Indic. 101, 203–211 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  167. 167.

    Brooks, B. W. et al. Are harmful algal blooms becoming the greatest inland water quality threat to public health and aquatic ecosystems? Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 35, 6–13 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  168. 168.

    Cambronero, M. C. et al. Predictability of the impact of multiple stressors on the keystone species Daphnia. Sci. Rep. 8, 17572 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  169. 169.

    Greaver, T. L. et al. Key ecological responses to nitrogen are altered by climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 836–843 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  170. 170.

    Collingsworth, P. D. et al. Climate change as a long-term stressor for the fisheries of the Laurentian Great Lakes of North America. Rev. Fish Biol. Fish. 27, 363–391 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  171. 171.

    Kilic, L. et al. Expected performances of the Copernicus Imaging Microwave Radiometer (CIMR) for an all-weather and high spatial resolution estimation of ocean and sea ice parameters. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 123, 7564–7580 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  172. 172.

    Cretaux, J.-F. et al. Lake volume monitoring from space. Surv. Geophys. 37, 269–305 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  173. 173.

    Piwowar, H. A. & Vision, T. J. Data reuse and the open data citation advantage. PeerJ 1, e175 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  174. 174.

    Bruce, L. C. et al. A multi-lake comparative analysis of the General Lake Model (GLM): Stress-testing across a global observatory network. Environ. Model. Softw. 102, 274–291 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  175. 175.

    Zwart, J. A. et al. Improving estimates and forecasts of lake carbon dynamics using data assimilation. Limnol. Oceanogr. Methods 17, 97–111 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  176. 176.

    Read, J. S. et al. Process-guided deep learning predictions of lake water temperature. Water Resour. Res. 55, 9173–9190 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  177. 177.

    Carrea, L. & Merchant, C. J. GloboLakes: lake surface water temperature (LSWT) v4.0 (1995-2016). CEDA Archive (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


R.I.W. received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 791812. B.M.K. received support from the Belmont Forum, BiodivERsA and the German Research Foundation through the LimnoScenES project (AD 91/22-1). S.S. thanks John Magnuson, Gesa Weyhenmeyer, Johanna Korhonen, Yasuyuki Aono, Lars Rudstam, Nikolay Granin and Kevin Blagrave for their assistance updating the lake ice phenology records. J.D.L. thanks Martin Dokulil, Katrin Teubner, Pius Niederhauser and David Livingstone for their assistance updating the LSWT records. J.D.L. was supported, in part, by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources grant no. I02E01485 (New Innovations in Lake Monitoring). This work benefited from participation in GLEON (Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network). The Cumbrian Lakes monitoring scheme, which provided lake temperature data from Windermere, is currently supported by the Natural Environment Research Council award number NE/R016429/1 as part of the UK-SCaPE programme delivering National Capability.

Author information




R.I.W. initiated and led the project. This Review is the result of a collective effort from all authors, with leadership on different sections as follows: S.S. led lake ice; R.I.W. led lake temperatures and mixing regimes; J.D.L. led evaporation and wetting–drying; B.M.K. led lake level and extent; C.M.O. led ecosystem impacts; and C.J.M. led the remote sensing summary. R.I.W., S.S., J.D.L. and B.M.K. compiled data. R.I.W., S.S., J.D.L. and B.M.K. led the design of visualizations. All authors contributed to the introduction and future directions, and participated in discussions, revisions and the final production of this manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Iestyn Woolway.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors do not have any competing financial or non-financial interests to declare.

Additional information

Peer review information

Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks Bertram Boehrer, Craig Williamson and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) 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.

Related links

European Space Agency Climate Change Initiative for Lakes:

Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network:


USDA G-REALM project:

World Meteorological Organization Global Climate Observing System Essential Climate Variables:



The area of a lake surface over which the wind blows in an essentially constant direction.


The fraction of light reflected from a surface, expressed as the ratio of outgoing to incoming solar radiation.


The lateral transport of heat, water or other material into or out of a lake.

Bowen ratio

The ratio of sensible to latent heat fluxes.


Increase in the receipt of solar radiation at the Earth’s surface due to long-term changes in cloud cover or aerosols.


Decrease in the receipt of solar radiation at the Earth’s surface due to long-term changes in cloud cover or aerosols.


(ET). The process of water vapour transport from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere, represented as the total evaporated water from soil, water and other wet surfaces, and transpiration from plants.

Total runoff

Surface runoff plus groundwater recharge.

Thermokarst lakes

Lakes formed by thawing ice-rich permafrost.


An increase in the yellow–brown colour of lake surface waters, caused mainly by an increase in dissolved organic carbon concentrations.


The enrichment of a water body with nutrients, often resulting in excessive algae growth.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Woolway, R.I., Kraemer, B.M., Lenters, J.D. et al. Global lake responses to climate change. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 388–403 (2020).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing