Assessing ecological resilience to human induced environmental change in shallow lakes
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date26/11/2020
Ives, Stephen Christopher
Sudden unpredictable changes in ecosystems are an increasing source of concern because of their inherent unpredictability and the difficulties involved in restoration. Our understanding of the changes that occur across different trophic levels and the form of this change is lacking. This is especially true of large shallow lakes, where characteristics such as fetch and depth are close to theoretical boundary values for hysteretic behaviour. The development of reliable indicators capable of predicting these changes has been the focus of much research in recent years. The success of these early warning indicators (EWIs) has so far been mixed. There remain many unknowns about how they perform under a wide variety of conditions and parameters. Future climate change is predicted to have a wide range of impacts through the interaction of combined pressures, making the understanding of EWIs and the in-lake processes that occur during regime shifts imperative. Loch Leven, Scotland, UK, is a large shallow lake with a history of eutrophication, research and management and as such is an ideal study site to better understand resilience and regime shifts under a range of interacting stressors. The objectives of this research are to: (1) analyse long term data to identify the occurrence of common tipping points within the chemical (water column nutrient concentrations) and biological (macrophytes, phytoplankton, zooplankton) components of the loch, then test these tipping points using five statistical early warning indicators (EWIs) across multiple rolling window sizes; and (2) quantify the changes in lake ecology using a before/after analysis and testing for non-linearity, combined with modelling using the aquatic ecosystem process model PCLake to determine the level of resilience following a regime shift during recovery from eutrophication; (3) using PCLake, examine the sensitivity of Loch Leven to regime shifts in the face of predicted environmental change (e.g. climate change, nutrient pollution). Statistical analysis identified tipping points across all trophic levels included, from physical and chemical variables through to apex predators. The success of EWIs in predicting the tipping points was highly dependent on the number of EWIs used, with window size having a smaller impact. The 45% window size had the highest overall accuracy across all EWIs but only detected 16.5% more tipping points than the window size with the lowest overall accuracy. Differences between individual EWI performance and usage of them as a group was substantial with a 29.7% increase between the two. In both individual and group use of EWIs, false positives (early warning without a tipping point) were more common than true positives (tipping point preceded by EWI), creating significant doubts about their reliability as management tools. Significant change was seen across multiple variables and trophic levels in the before/after analysis following sudden recovery from eutrophication, with most variables also showing evidence of non-linear change. Modelling of responses to nutrient loading for chlorophyll, zooplankton and macrophytes, under states from before and after the shift, indicate hysteresis and thus the presence of feedback mechanisms. The modelling of responses to nutrient loading and predicted climate change in temperature and precipitation demonstrated that increases in temperature and decreases in summer precipitation individually had large impacts on chlorophyll and zooplankton at medium to high phosphorus (P) loads. However, modelling of the combined effects of these changes resulted in the highest lake chlorophyll concentrations of all tested scenarios. At low P loads higher temperatures and increased winter precipitation had the greatest impact on system resilience with a lower Critical Nutrient Load (CNL). The difference between chlorophyll and zooplankton as opposed to macrophytes was in the presence of a lower CNL for the increased winter precipitation-only scenarios which was not seen in the macrophytes. This highlights the potential role of high winter inputs potentially loaded with particulate matter in reducing resilience at lower P loads. This research has highlighted the vulnerability and low resilience of Loch Leven to environmental change. The presence of multiple tipping points and high levels of EWI activity show a high level of flexibility in the system. Coupled with the occurrence of widespread trophic change during a sudden recovery and a small level of hysteresis and high levels of sensitivity to climate change, the low levels of resilience become clear. The impact of lake-specific characteristics such as moderate depth, large fetch and a heterogeneous bed morphology is particularly evident in the limitations on macrophyte cover and the reliance on zooplankton to determine the hysteresis offset (amount of phosphorus (P) loading between the two CNL). The presence of these characteristics can be used to identify other lakes vulnerable to change. Improving the predictive capabilities of resilience indicators such as EWIs, and better understanding of the ecological changes that occur during non-linear change in response to recovery and climate change, can help target relevant ecosystem components for preventative management. These actions may become necessary under even the most conservative estimates of environmental change.