IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Changes in physical and chemical aspects of lakes and rivers

Changes in thermal structure and chemistry have been documented in many parts of the world in recent decades.

Thermal structure

Higher water temperatures have been reported in lakes in response to warmer conditions (Table 1.3) (see Table SM1.3 for additional changes in physical water properties). Shorter periods of ice cover and decreases in river- and lake-ice thickness are treated in Section 1.3.1 and Le Treut et al. (2007). Phytoplankton dynamics and primary productivity have also been altered in conjunction with changes in lake physics (see Section; Figure 1.2; Table 1.6). Since the 1960s, surface water temperatures have warmed by 0.2 to 2°C in lakes and rivers in Europe, North America and Asia. Along with warming surface waters, deep-water temperatures (which reflect long-term trends) of the large East African lakes (Edward, Albert, Kivu, Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi) have warmed by 0.2 to 0.7°C since the early 1900s. Increased water temperature and longer ice-free seasons influence the thermal stratification and internal hydrodynamics of lakes. In warmer years, surface water temperatures are higher, evaporative water loss increases, summer stratification occurs earlier in the season, and thermoclines become shallower. In several lakes in Europe and North America, the stratified period has advanced by up to 20 days and lengthened by 2 to 3 weeks, with increased thermal stability.


Figure 1.2. Historical and recent measurements from Lake Tanganyika, East Africa: (a) upper mixed layer (surface water) temperatures; (b) deep-water (600 m) temperatures; (c) depth of the upper mixed layer. Triangles represent data collected by a different method. Error bars represent standard deviations. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. [Nature] (O’Reilly et al., 2003), copyright 2003. 


Increased stratification reduces water movement across the thermocline, inhibiting the upwelling and mixing that provide essential nutrients to the food web. There have been decreases in nutrients in the surface water and corresponding increases in deep-water concentrations of European and East African lakes because of reduced upwelling due to greater thermal stability. Many lakes and rivers have increased concentrations of sulphates, base cations and silica, and greater alkalinity and conductivity related to increased weathering of silicates, calcium and magnesium sulphates, or carbonates, in their catchment. In contrast, when warmer temperatures enhanced vegetative growth and soil development in some high-alpine ecosystems, alkalinity decreased because of increased organic-acid inputs (Karst-Riddoch et al., 2005). Glacial melting increased the input of organochlorines (which had been atmospherically transported to and stored in the glacier) to a sub-alpine lake in Canada (Blais et al., 2001).

Increased temperature also affects in-lake chemical processes (Table 1.3) (also see Table SM1.3 for additional observed changes in chemical water properties). There have been decreases in dissolved inorganic nitrogen from greater phytoplankton productivity (Sommaruga-Wograth et al., 1997; Rogora et al., 2003) and greater in-lake alkalinity generation and increases in pH in soft-water lakes (Psenner and Schmidt, 1992). Decreased solubility from higher temperatures significantly contributed to 11 to 13% of the decrease in aluminium concentration (Vesely et al., 2003), whereas lakes that had warmer water temperatures had increased mercury methylation and higher mercury levels in fish (Bodaly et al., 1993). A decrease in silicon content related to regional warming has been documented in Lake Baikal, Russia. River water-quality data from 27 rivers in Japan also suggest a deterioration in both chemical and biological features due to increases in air temperature.