Plankton dynamics under different climatic conditions in space and time

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Freshwater Biology, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Volume 58, Number 3, p.463–482 (2013)



climate change; PEG model; phytoplankton; seasonal succession; zooplankton


1. Different components of the climate system have been shown to affect temporal dynamics in natural plankton communities on scales varying from days to years. The seasonal dynamics in temperate lake plankton communities, with emphasis on both physical and biological forcing factors, were captured in the 1980s in a conceptual framework, the Plankton Ecology Group (PEG) model.2. Taking the PEG model as our starting point, we discuss anticipated changes in seasonal and long-term plankton dynamics and extend this model to other climate regions, particularly polar and tropical latitudes. Based on our improved post-PEG understanding of plankton dynamics, we also evaluate the role of microbial plankton, parasites and fish in governing plankton dynamics and distribution.3. In polar lakes, there is usually just a single peak in plankton biomass in summer. Lengthening of the growing season under warmer conditions may lead to higher and more prolonged phytoplankton productivity. Climate-induced increases in nutrient loading in these oligotrophic waters may contribute to higher phytoplankton biomass and subsequent higher zooplankton and fish productivity.4. In temperate lakes, a seasonal pattern with two plankton biomass peaks – in spring and summer – can shift to one with a single but longer and larger biomass peak as nutrient loading increases, with associated higher populations of zooplanktivorous fish. Climate change will exacerbate these trends by increasing nutrient loading through increased internal nutrient inputs (due to warming) and increased catchment inputs (in the case of more precipitation).5. In tropical systems, temporal variability in precipitation can be an important driver of the seasonal development of plankton. Increases in precipitation intensity may reset the seasonal dynamics of plankton communities and favour species adapted to highly variable environments. The existing intense predation by fish on larger zooplankters may increase further, resulting in a perennially low zooplankton biomass.6. Bacteria were not included in the original PEG model. Seasonally, bacteria vary less than the phytoplankton but often follow its patterns, particularly in colder lakes. In warmer lakes, and with future warming, a greater influx of allochthonous carbon may obscure this pattern.7. Our analyses indicate that the consequences of climate change for plankton dynamics are, to a large extent, system specific, depending on characteristics such as food-web structure and nutrient loading. Indirect effects through nutrient loading may be more important than direct effects of temperature increase, especially for phytoplankton. However, with warming a general picture emerges of increases in bacterivory, greater cyanobacterial dominance and smaller-bodied zooplankton that are more heavily impacted by fish predation.