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Trophic dynamics of shrinking Subarctic lakes: naturally eutrophic waters impart resilience to rising nutrient and major ion concentrations

May 31, 2016

Shrinking lakes were recently observed for several Arctic and Subarctic regions due to increased evaporation and permafrost degradation. Along with lake drawdown, these processes often boost aquatic chemical concentrations, potentially impacting trophic dynamics. In particular, elevated chemical levels may impact primary productivity, which may in turn influence populations of primary and secondary consumers. We examined trophic dynamics of 18 shrinking lakes of the Yukon Flats, Alaska, that had experienced pronounced increases in nutrient (>200 % total nitrogen, >100 % total phosphorus) and ion concentrations (>100 % for four major ions combined) from 1985-1989 to 2010-2012, versus 37 stable lakes with relatively little chemical change over the same period. We found that phytoplankton stocks, as indexed by chlorophyll concentrations, remained unchanged in both shrinking and stable lakes from the 1980s to 2010s. Moving up the trophic ladder, we found significant changes in invertebrate abundance across decades, including decreased abundance of five of six groups examined. However, these decadal losses in invertebrate abundance were not limited to shrinking lakes, occurring in lakes with stable surface areas as well. At the top of the food web, we observed that probabilities of lake occupancy for ten waterbird species, including adults and chicks, remained unchanged from the period 1985-1989 to 2010-2012. Overall, our study lakes displayed a high degree of resilience to multi-trophic cascades caused by rising chemical concentrations. This resilience was likely due to their naturally high fertility, such that further nutrient inputs had little impact on waters already near peak production.