Combining limnological and palaeolimnological data to disentangle the effects of nutrient pollution and climate change on lake ecosystems: problems and potential

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Freshwater Biology, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Volume 57, Number 10, p.2091–2106 (2012)



climate change; diatoms; eutrophication; lake sediments; long-term records


1. As long-term observational lake records continue to lengthen, the historical overlap with lake sediment records grows, providing increasing opportunities for placing the contemporary ecological status of lakes in a temporal perspective. 2. Comparisons between long-term data sets and sediment records, however, require lake sediments to be accurately dated and for sediment accumulation rates to be sufficiently rapid to allow precise matching with observational data. 3. The critical role of the sediment record in this context is its value in tracking the changing impact of human activity on a lake from a pre-disturbance reference through to the present day. 4. Here, we use data from a range of lakes across Europe presented as case studies in this Special Section. The seven sites considered all possess both long-term observational records and high-quality sediment records. Our objective is to assess whether recent climate change is having an impact on their trophic status and in particular whether that impact can be disentangled from the changes associated with nutrient pollution. 5. The palaeo-data show clear evidence for the beginning of nutrient pollution varying from the mid-nineteenth century at Loch Leven to the early and middle twentieth century at other sites. The monitoring data show different degrees of recovery when judged against the palaeo-reference. 6. The reason for limited recovery is attributed to continuing high nutrient concentrations related to an increase in diffuse nutrient loading or to internal P recycling, but there is some evidence that climate change may be playing a role in offsetting recovery at some sites. If this is the case, then lake ecosystems suffering from eutrophication may not necessarily return to their pre-eutrophication reference status despite the measures that have been taken to reduce external nutrient loading.7. The extent to which future warming might further limit such recovery can be evaluated only by continued monitoring combined with the use of palaeo-records that set the pre-eutrophication reference.