Global lake responses to climate change

Subjects

Abstract

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.

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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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Contributions

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.

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Correspondence to R. Iestyn Woolway.

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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.

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Related links

European Space Agency Climate Change Initiative for Lakes: http://cci.esa.int/lakes

Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network: https://gleon.org/

Hydroweb: http://hydroweb.theia-land.fr/

USDA G-REALM project: https://ipad.fas.usda.gov/cropexplorer/global_reservoir/

World Meteorological Organization Global Climate Observing System Essential Climate Variables: https://public.wmo.int/en/programmes/global-climate-observing-system/essential-climate-variables

Glossary

Fetch

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

Albedo

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

Advection

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.

Brightening

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

Dimming

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

Evapotranspiration

(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.

Browning

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

Eutrophication

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

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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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0067-5

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