Understanding and Managing the Effects of Climate Change on Aquatic Ecosystems


There is mounting evidence that climate-changeinduced extreme events are expected to adversely affect the aquatic ecosystems and ecosystem services that they provide. To address this need to understand how climate, aquatic ecological, and social systems interact and how to manage these coupled systems, LimnoTech is participating with a large team of researchers (from Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Heidelberg University, University of Toledo, Grace College, and the Great Lakes Observing System [GLOS]) in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Water Sustainability and Climate Project to examine the following question: “What are the possible effects of climate-change-induced extreme events on water quality and ecology in the GL system, and what management strategies would be effective to address these changes?”

The project team is investigating and examining the interactions among various components of the whole problem, including atmospheric modeling of climate change, effects of extreme events on watershed sediment and nutrient loading, in-lake response to extreme eventdriven changes in atmospheric and nutrient loading conditions, socioeconomic responses and adaptation to environmental changes, and education/outreach on this problem (as depicted in the diagram below).

The project will use the Maumee River Watershed and the western basin of Lake Erie as a case study and test bed for the prediction and adaptive management tools that are being developed. As an active partner and co-investigator in this project, LimnoTech’s role is the development and application of the Western Lake Erie Ecosystem Model (WLEEM), which simulates the in-lake harmful algal blooms in response to climate-induced changes in atmospheric boundary conditions and watershed nutrient loading. We have already applied WLEEM to demonstrate that high spring flows and associated nutrient loads from the highly agricultural Maumee Watershed, predicted by climate models to become more frequent in the future, are the primary driver of harmful algal blooms in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. We are now in the process of using the model to develop a load-response relationship that will allow managers to establish a loading target for reducing the blooms, even in the face of exacerbation of the problem by climate change.

In 2011, the Western Basin of Lake Erie experienced the largest harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie’s recorded history, with peak intensity over three times greater than any previously observed bloom. That occurrence provided an excellent opportunity for the NSF project team to investigate the contributing cause-effect relationships for this extreme event. This part of the overall study led to a peer-reviewed publication entitled, “Assessing the Effects of Climate-Change-Induced Extreme Events on Water Quality and Ecology in the Great Lakes” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings of the paper, posted on the National Science foundation website (http://www. miseagrant.umich.edu/nsf/), suggest how weather extremes contributed to the large bloom and why this type of occurrence may become more likely in the future.

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