04 Aug 2023
 | 04 Aug 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESD.

Lake ecosystem tipping points and climate feedbacks

Dag Olav Hessen, Tom Andersen, David Armstrong McKay, Sarian Kosten, Mariana Meerhoff, Amy Pickard, and Bryan Spears

Abstract. Lakes experience anthropogenically-forced changes that may initiate ecosystem feedbacks, in some cases reaching tipping points beyond which impacts become hard to reverse. Lakes are also important players in the global climate by ventilating a large share of terrestrial carbon back to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, and will likely provide substantial feedbacks to climate change. In this paper we address various major changes in lake ecosystems, and discuss if tipping points can be identified, predicted, or prevented in them, along with their associated feedbacks to climate change. Potential tipping dynamics assessed include eutrophication-driven anoxia and internal phosphorus-loading, increased loading of organic matter from terrestrial to lake ecosystems (lake “browning”), lake formation or disappearance in response to cryosphere shifts, switching from nitrogen to phosphorus limitation, salinization, and the spread of invasive species. We also address other types of abrupt, or threshold-type shifts in lakes and ponds, and conclude on which tipping points are locally or regionally relevant. We identify a key set of co-drivers that could lead to self-sustaining feedbacks, with warming, browning, and eutrophication leading to increased lake stratification, heterotrophy, and algal mass, which separately or collectively drive benthic oxygen depletion and in turn increased greenhouse gas emissions (helping to drive further warming and organic matter loading) and internal phosphorus-loading (driving further eutrophication). Several of these processes can feature tipping points, which further warming will likely make easier to reach. We argue that the full importance of the vulnerability of lakes to climate and other anthropogenic impacts, as well as their feedback to climate is not yet fully acknowledged, so there is a need both for science and communication in this regard.

Dag Olav Hessen et al.

Status: open (extended)

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Dag Olav Hessen et al.

Dag Olav Hessen et al.


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Short summary
Lakes worldwide is in change and under threat due to stressors such as overload of nutrients, increased input of organic carbon (“browning”), and climate change that may cause reduced water volume, salinization or even loss of waterbodies. Some of these changes are abrupt to an extent that can be characterized as tipping points for that particular system. Such changes may also cause increased release of greenhouse gases, and lakes are major players in the global climate in this context.